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With season at early crisis point, Sabres respond

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- Maybe, just maybe, the Buffalo Sabres are fast learners.

They blew a three-goal lead in shocking fashion Tuesday in Philadelphia. They played like zombies in Thursday's blanking by Minnesota. At 1-3-2, they were at an early crisis point in their season and awoke Saturday morning 29th out of 30 teams in the NHL's overall standing.

What kind of message would they send with a difficult set of back-to-back games over the weekend? Would they fall deeper into the abyss of the standings? Would they completely lose touch with the top of the Atlantic Division even before trick-or-treating was done?

Legitimate questions for sure. The Sabres have answered them in resounding fashion.

They spanked the Florida Panthers, 3-0, Saturday and were similarly in charge Sunday in a 3-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets before the usual MTS Centre sellout crowd of 15,294.

Closing October with a 3-3-2 record puts quite a different narrative for now on a season being played without Jack Eichel and Evander Kane.

"It's the weekend we wanted," said center Ryan O'Reilly. "Taking it one game at a time, scoring early goals and closing the door. That's the way we wanted to play. We knew it was still early in the season, and we know we didn't need to sell the farm but we knew we had to be better. To respond like this is good but we can't change. The next game remains the most important one."

Coach Dan Bylsma takes the view of a long prism and would never draw immediate conclusions, pro or con, on two games. That said, he was clearly impressed by what he saw as well.

"I do think we have to have learned a lesson from the Philadelphia game and it appears we've done that," Bylsma said. "The last two games we've had the lead going into the third period and had some similar circumstances as Philadelphia killing a penalty at the start of the third period.

"There was a good calm, confident demeanor about the way we played the third period, really kind of believing we're going to come out on top."

Kyle Okposo scored two goals to tie Matt Moulson for the team lead with four, the Sabres got 37 saves from goaltender Robin Lehner and killed off all six Winnipeg power plays. The game's signature moment was Okposo's second goal, a crisp, three-way passing play that sent him in alone to beat Jets goalie Michael Hutchinson at 13:59 of the second period.

The Sabres were leading, 2-0, at the time but the Jets were pushing in the Buffalo zone and getting some scoring chances. The crowd in what can be one of the NHL's noisiest buildings was looking to erupt for a Winnipeg goal that would have halved the deficit and perhaps turned the game around.

It didn't happen. The Sabres created a turnover in their own zone and Cody Franson found O'Reilly heading toward the neutral zone. O'Reilly sent a long stretch pass over three lines to Okposo, who had come off the bench and cut through the middle of the ice.

Skating through the left circle on his off wing, Okposo unleashed a sizzling snapshot that beat Hutchinson under the arm to put Buffalo in front, 3-0, and silence the crowd.

"It was a bang-bang play," Okposo said. "They were changing, we were changing, I just popped off the bench. Right from Cody to Ryan to me and I pretty much had a breakaway. That's a really good passing play all around."

"We tracked the puck well, hunted their guy, turned it over and went north fast," O'Reilly said. "Kyle made a great read to find an open area and I got it up to him. You give him those chances, he'll bury them like he did."

The Jets got a goal from Nikolaj Ehlers at 4:49 of the third but the Sabres didn't panic, even in the face of having to kill two penalties in the final 4 1/2 minutes -- and missing an empty net on long-range chances five times while the Jets played 6-on-4 for much of that span.

"It's a good step in the right direction," Okposo said. "At home we played a really complete game. Today in the third period where things could have gone scrambly, they didn't. Even when they got the goal and tried to keep making a push, we did a pretty good job shutting them down."



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