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Mike Harrington: Battling Sabres prove they can still compete

If you're having a hard time processing what we saw Saturday night in KeyBank Center, you're not alone.

But the one takeaway from the Sabres' riveting 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins is this: When times get tough from this point forward, look back to Nov. 19.

To the night when the Sabres got through a 65-minute game against Sidney Crosby & Co. and didn't allow a goal at even strength. To the night when they were again outmatched but finally refused to cave. To the night when six players you would have ticketed for Rochester in September and a goalie you expected to simply be the backup during training camp helped beat the defending Stanley Cup champions.

And to the night when they proved they should still be able to compete even with all their injuries. Enough feeling sorry for this team. Maybe enough of them feeling sorry for themselves too. This six-game losing streak didn't have to go down like it did.

It made me think back to a rant Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson had early in his 2015 MVP season. The Blue Jays were in Houston, and were swept in a four-game series to fall to 17-21. Donaldson, a competitor to the 10th degree, didn't want to hear about how the club was battling.

"It's really just about going out there and either getting the job done," Donaldson said that day. "This isn't the 'Try League.' This is the 'Get it Done League.' And you know, eventually they're gonna find people who are going to get it done."

Donaldson's words became a mantra for the first division championship season in Toronto in 22 years. Profound stuff. The Sabres have been talking about the try part too much of late. It's about time we saw some of the get-it-done part. Good for them to get there.

Now, there was too much spirit on the ice, on the bench and (finally) in the crowd to go all negative here but let's not forget this was yet another one-goal game for the offense. And the Sabres are 10 for 10 in November scoring two goals or less. Coach Dan Bylsma had to love beating his old team and even he could push that aside on this night because the big picture was far more important.

"It doesn't really matter at this point in time who it's against," Bylsma said. "But it's a win we desperately needed against one of the better teams, if not the best team in the league."

Quick quiz: If I told you in training camp my prediction was that the Sabres would beat the Penguins in November on a goal by William Carrier and a shootout winner from Cal O'Reilly, what kind of reaction would that elicit? You'd say I was insane.

But we saw it. Carrier connected for his first NHL goal on an artful tip from defenseman Taylor Fedun, who has two assists in two games and looks completely comfortable back in the NHL.

"I had a few chances in games before so it's nice to get that first in," Carrier said. "Me and Fedun have been practicing that play down in 'Roch' and in every morning skate so it's pretty nice to get that one."

"He deserves it," said O'Reilly, the Amerks captain who joined the Sabres on Saturday morning. "I knew when he came up that with his work ethic and tenacity that they would love him here. It was great to see him get rewarded."

This team still needs to get more -- a lot more -- from its regulars. Kyle Okposo has no goals in his last seven games. Evander Kane has none in the six games he's played. Brian Gionta hasn't scored in 10 games, Johan Larsson in nine. But all of them had good moments on one end of the ice or the other in this one.

Rasmus Ristolainen and Josh Gorges endured a four-minute shift during one second-period stretch, getting only a quick Bylsma timeout after an icing. Larsson, Gionta and Marcus Foligno were all on the ice for three minutes.

"Really, we wanted a 0-0 game and to get the dirty win," Carrier admitted. "The team played really well. We all pushed together, all played the same way. We were chipping pucks in, chipping pucks out. It feels great as a team right now."

It was certainly one of Bylsma's better games behind the bench in a while. The timeout, which he said was just the second he's used on icing in the era of coaches saving them for challenges, was totally the right call. So was using O'Reilly in the shootout, where he was 6 for 13 in his career. And so was not telling O'Reilly until right before sending him over the boards. Keep the player engaged in what's going on but don't make him overthink things.

Then there was Bylsma's curious choice of starting goaltenders, for which he was rewarded handsomely.

Anders Nilsson made 46 saves and improved his season totals in five starts to a 1.74 goals-against average and .951 save percentage. When asked about the choice following the morning skate, Bylsma tried to pass it off as just giving Nilsson a chance during a busy schedule of games.

Call bullhockey on that.

You're at home on a Saturday night playing the defending Cup champs and you play the backup goalie? There was a message there. Robin Lehner has hardly been bad, with a goals-against average of 2.53 and a .919 save percentage, but he's lost his last three starts and given up 11 goals in the process. Lehner is like everyone else on this team. Be better.

Naturally, I prodded the elephant in the room when I asked Bylsma: Doesn't he have to come back with Nilsson Monday against Calgary?

Bylsma smirked and kind of rolled his eyes at that one.

"It's a good win, wasn't it?" he said. "Just wanted to see how I'd react?

Actually, yep.

It was a funny moment. A great reaction. Just like what we got from Bylsma's team. Finally.


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