Mike Harrington: On ice, you can see a Process too - The Buffalo News

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Mike Harrington: On ice, you can see a Process too

NEW YORK -- Since we're all swept up by The Process these days, let's spend a little time looking at how it's going on the other side of the Pegula Sports empire as we hit the new year.

Initial Reaction: Meh.

The Sabres are not the team we saw in October and November, and that's a relief. Any way that you, Phil Housley, Jason Botterill or any player wants to spin it, there will never be an excuse for the 6-17-4 disaster that ruined the season and meant this club was buried in the playoff race long before Christmas.

Since then? Points in nine of 12 games sounds good in the wake of Monday's 3-2 overtime loss to the New York Rangers in the Winter Classic. Although the NHL's 4-3-5 math makes it look and feel better than the reality of the team being 4-8.

But there's a legitimate sense of growth creeping in with this club. Monday's Winter Classic at frigid Citi Field started out exactly like the disaster NBC and the NHL had to be fearing all month by having a bottom feeder in the game for the first time.

The magnitude of the event seemed too big for the Sabres, who gave up 13 of the first 17 shots on goal and were in a 2-0 hole after less than nine minutes. That was game-over for the first two months of the season with this club's squirt-gun offense.

That's no longer the case.

The Sabres started moving their feet, drawing penalties and taking the game away. They got Sam Reinhart's first goal since the day before Thanksgiving in the second period and a tying tally from Rasmus Ristolainen in the first minute of the third.

Sabres learn the big stage needs to be embraced immediately

"It's great to see whether you're up a goal or down a goal or two that you're still making a push," said defenseman Zach Bogosian. "When you're having adversity, you want to see a good pushback. It's something we've done lately that we have to keep up."

They were skating hard. The game went to overtime, a scourge for much of the season but a success point Friday in New Jersey on Ristolainen's winning goal. There was momentum there. There was hope.

"We're sticking with it," said goalie Robin Lehner, who added 39 saves to the growing resume of his best NHL season. "There's parts of our game we need to keep working hard at but we got the momentum back."

Sure did.

The Sabres came close to winning but Sam Reinhart just failed to connect with Jack Eichel on a 2-on-1, with a last-second deflection by Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh foiling the play. Jacob Josefson's ticky-tack tripping penalty in OT led to J.T. Miller's game-winning goal.

That's a 2-8 record in OT winners for the Sabres this year (and it's patently odd that nine of those 10 games have been on the road).

Winter Classic Wraparound: Rangers 3, Sabres 2 (OT)

Now, there are reasons a team is 5-14 in one-goal games. The Sabres obviously don't score enough, whether at even strength or on the power play. And they simply have to get better on the back end. The down-low coverage isn't nearly tough enough most nights. They lose battles all the time in front of the net and there's nothing Lehner or Chad Johnson can do to stop a puck most times from a foot away.

When asked about the issue, Housley wasn't going to indict his guys. That's how coaches are but he has to know. He better know.

There's no anonymity in this particular game. It was far more than just one of 82. The entire hockey world saw point-blank that Marco Scandella didn't tie up Miller on the overtime winner and that Jake McCabe failed to do likewise on Michael Grabner's goal in the first period.

It's high time some Buffalo defensemen knock some opposing forwards on their keisters in the front of the net. We don't see it nearly enough. But that's just one problem.

Nathan Beaulieu continues to struggle in his own end, which is exactly why Montreal traded him, and Josh Gorges wants to do more than he can at this point as the Sabres are just counting the days until they can get his contract off their books.

Bogosian's return from injury is one reason the Sabres are a better team now than the first two months. But his ill-timed roughing penalty just 38 seconds into the game created all of the Rangers' momentum that resulted in two goals and a 13-4 advantage in shots in the opening 10 minutes.

"He tries to jump by me and I hit him in the face by accident," Bogosian said of Rangers forward Mika Zibanejad. "Those things happen. It could have happened in the other 81 games too. One of those things."

I get the point. Bogosian isn't wrong. But don't let it happen in this game. Especially in the first minute.

Eichel accurately lamented the Josefson penalty as a call that could have been looked away from in overtime so the game would be decided at 3 on 3. Officials had an active whistle all day, then swallowed it for much of the third period. Eichel was tackled of the final seconds in regulation and there was no call, as opposed to the Josefson whistle.

But those things happen to losing teams still trying to find their way. The Sabres neeed to understand where they succeeded for six days in New York. They were two overtime goals away from being 3-0 on the trip and instead ended 1-0-2.

"We definitely believe in ourselves even if we get down," said Eichel. "We know what we had to do. We knew we had to get to our game. We're all enjoying the spectacle together at the start. Soon as we got going and realized it was just a regular game, we started taking it to them."

For one day, at least, it was good to see the Sabres relevant once again on the hockey landscape. And it's really been longer than that, given the NBC reality show cameras following them around much of December. By the way, can we get a few games the rest of this season to wear those super sharp sweaters? Please?

The Sabres will go back to their hockey bunkers now, starting Thursday in Minnesota and Friday in Winnipeg. They're a non-factor on the NHL radar and won't even register locally while the Bills gear up for the game in Jacksonville. Sunday's game in Philadelphia -- at the same time as kickoff down in Florida -- will almost certainly be the lowest-rated Sabres game on TV in Buffalo in years.

The Process was really sped up out in Orchard Park, with the most unusual tank anybody in these parts has ever seen. It's slow and plodding downtown and there's no telling how it's going to go now that the season's high point is over and Botterill will likely start shaking up the roster. Here's looking at you, Evander Kane.

But at least things are moving again. Making bigger moves are what the last 43 games will be about.

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