Brian Gionta came into Friday night with one goal on 42 shots on goal this season. One. This from a player with 263 career goals in the NHL, including seven seasons with more than 20.
The Buffalo Sabres captain is 36 years old and isn’t going to score at that level anymore but he couldn’t stay stuck at one either.
The pressure on Gionta was growing from within and growing from the outside as well. General Manager Tim Murray joked about Gionta’s 2.4 shooting percentage during his weekly radio appearance Friday. And how much longer could coach Dan Bylsma keep giving him top-six minutes without any production?
Then came a grievous turnover Friday night that directly led to the Carolina Hurricanes’ tying goal early in the second period by Victor Rask. Gionta isn’t scoring and now he was handing chances to the opponent.
But Jack Eichel took some of the heat off Gionta with a howitzer that burned Canes goalie Cam Ward - and then Gionta finally did some damage himself.
“I think his celebration indicated just how bad he needed it,” Bylsma said of Gionta’s goal with 23 seconds left in the second period that gave the Sabres breathing room in their 4-1 win over the Hurricanes in First Niagara Center.
Skating through the neutral zone, Gionta dropped the puck to Matt Moulson as it entered the Carolina zone and burst to the net. Moulson found him and Gionta tipped the puck by Ward, raising his arms over his head and pumping his fist in relief.
“It’s always tough when you have a turnover like that and it ends up in the back of your net,” Gionta said. “You want better for yourself and it was nice to get it back for the team. ... I wasn’t worried. Numbers-wise, it’s not where you want to be but you’re creating chances and creating momentum so I was not as frustrated as I have been.”
Gionta’s ice-time in recent games – including a season-high 22:16 during Wednesday’s loss to Nashville – has raised eyebrows, given his lack of production. But he had three shots on goal in each of the last two games and missed several other chances from in tight.
“You look over the course of the past 5-6 games, he’s probably had more scoring chances than anybody on this team,” said defenseman and longtime Gionta teammate Josh Gorges, who opened the scoring with his first goal as a Sabre in the first period. “He’s there, he’s getting the opportunties ... Tonight it was great to see him get that one, feel a little bit looser, not grip the stick and go out there and play.”
Bylsma confirmed the captain’s ice time has been a product of how much he’s been involved in the play, even if the numbers don’t back up the faith.
“He’s been squeezing it a little bit in that regard,” Bylsma said. “Tonight’s wasn’t necessarily a great opportunity. He kind of creates it out of his drive to the net, gets a nice play from Matt going to the cage and redirects. Maybe that’s how he needed to get it.”
Gionta’s goal was one of several marquee moments in a game that saw Buffalo snap its six-game winless streak.
The Sabres killed off a Zach Bogosian interference penalty without allowing a shot on goal and took the lead for good eight seconds later on Eichel’s eighth goal of the season.
“I come down my strong side and I’m trying to go across the goalie’s body to his blocker,” Eichel said. “Everyone can catch a puck these days, so you try to keep it away from the glove. I don’t know if it deflected off the defenseman’s stick or not but luckily it went in.”
The Sabres then shut the game down in the third period, allowing only five shots on goal.
“We did a lot of things where we got pucks in deep, played below the goal line, used our cycle game,” Gorges said. That’s the best way to kill a period, to play in the offensive zone.”
“That first period and a half, we had a lot of turnovers and were feeding right into their speed,” Gionta said. “They’re a quick team that transitions well and their ‘D’ jump in the play a lot. They have lot of active D that get a lot of their points. We limited the turnovers and we got much better.”