ST. PAUL, Minn. – You want a quick sign of maturity and development for the Buffalo Sabres this year? Easy. Check their road record.
The Sabres scored three first-period goals and held on through a frantic final minute Tuesday to beat the Minnesota Wild, 3-2, in XCel Energy Center. It gave them two straight wins to close their three-game trip and got them back to even away from First Niagara Center – 9-9-2, for 20 points in 20 games.
Perhaps that seems like a mundane accomplishment. But it isn’t when you consider what this team endured the last two seasons.
The Sabres were 9-29-3 on the road last year and 8-30-3 in 2013-14, becoming the first NHL team in 15 years with 30 regulation losses away from home. They had losing streaks on the road of 11 and eight games that season and had an 0-13-1 stretch last year – a season that saw them lose an astounding 19 road games by three goals or more.
“I take it as a point of pride, how we’ve played on the road,” said coach Dan Bylsma. “Really throughout the year, we’ve had some tough games on the road, tough opponents … and we’ve been able to go and win some hockey games. Good teams have to be .500 on the road.”
The Sabres have definitely landed some quality road kills this year. In addition to the Wild, a team that entered the night with a seven-point cushion in the Western Conference wild-card race, Buffalo owns marquee wins over clubs like Atlantic Division leader Florida, Detroit, the New York Islanders, Tampa Bay and Boston. And the Sabres survived the circus atmosphere around Evander Kane’s return to Winnipeg to post their first win ever in MTS Centre on Sunday.
As for close shaves against big teams, the Sabres suffered a shootout loss at St. Louis and were in a tie game inside the final five minutes Friday at Stanley Cup champion Chicago before falling, 3-1.
“It tells us we have a tight game, a team that never gives in,” said defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. “It’s not beautiful what kind of game we play on the road. It’s kind of greasy. But I like it that way and we get a lot of wins when we play like this.”
“Obviously improved depth helps with matchups,” said captain Brian Gionta. “We’ve got lines that can play against anybody so that helps. It’s about being a professional, being prepared to come into the road game. Not make it pretty, but get wins.”
The Sabres, of course, have needed to get points on the road because they’ve been failing at home, with an 8-13-2 mark that leaves them with the most losses in their friendly confines in the league. The Sabres are averaging 2.7 goals per game on the road and an NHL-worst 1.96 per game at home.
The damage was done in the first period Tuesday with goals from Jamie McGinn, Ristolainen and Gionta staking the Sabres to their 3-0 advantage.
“We know that normally home teams come out on fire because the fans are behind them and they have good first periods,” said McGinn, who converted a Kane rebound for his goal. “We wanted to do that today and take the crowd out of it. It’s a loud building. If you take them out of the game early, you’ve got a chance.”
Gionta tipped a Josh Gorges floater out of mid-air at 17:50, just 20 seconds after Ristolainen scored on a deflected point shot. Gionta had to endure a video review for a high stick before claiming his fifth goal of the season.
“Guys were joking about the crossbar and my shoulders being different heights,” joked the 5-foot-7 Buffalo captain. “But I had a good feeling it was going to be a good goal.”
The Sabres had some nervous moments in the final minute as former Buffalo winger Thomas Vanek scored with 51.8 seconds left to get the Wild within a goal and Minnesota had a couple decent looks at a tying tally. But rookie goalie Linus Ullmark stood his ground and got plenty of help from his friends to preserve the win.
“Those are the games we mature and learn how to win as a team,” Gionta said. “Obviously the start helps. You jump out to a lead like that in the first, you can settle into your game and really grind them down.”