The Sabres’ roller coaster is back to the fun part. A couple of overtime victories have boosted spirits and Buffalo’s spot in the standings.
If the Sabres keep it up, they might fulfill their expectations.
“At the end of the day, we’re not performing to the best of our ability as a group, and we’ve got to find a way to do that,” captain Brian Gionta said.
Gionta knew he was signing up for a rebuild in July 2014. The timeline to contention has not gone as he planned. The Sabres took their expected leap last year, jumping from 54 points to 81. They are on pace for 84 this season, not the ascension they were expecting.
“Yeah, I would have thought we were further along than we are, but situations happen,” Gionta said. “It’s a pretty fluid thing, so it’s constantly evolving.”
The Sabres’ streaky nature has kept them near the bottom of the standings. When they visit Nashville on Tuesday, they’ll be looking to win three in a row for the first time since Nov. 1. They’ve escaped the cellar, but they entered Sunday’s schedule tied for 12th in the Eastern Conference and fifth in the Atlantic Division in points percentage.
Gionta, meanwhile, has three points in three games. He scored his 10th goal of the season during Saturday’s 2-1 overtime win in Montreal. He’s on pace for 18 goals after recording 12 last year and 13 during his first season with the Sabres.
“I’ve said it since I’ve came here, I measure it on what I can do to help this team win,” Gionta said. “It’s not purely statistics. It’s situational, and it all depends. That’s how I’ve always measured my game.”
Even a mild hot streak would put Gionta over 20 goals, something he hasn’t done since burying 29 with Montreal in 2010-11. It would be an accomplishment for the man who just added another year to his age.
Gionta celebrated his 38th birthday Wednesday. Well, celebrated probably isn’t the right word, as many hockey parents would understand.
“My youngest had a skating class in the afternoon, and my son had a game at night,” he said. “It was basically a date night watching the kids play hockey.”
It makes sense Gionta didn’t do much on his birthday because there are times he seems ageless. He’s lost a step since his younger days, but he remains willing to forecheck and get near the crease, which is he where he scored from Saturday.
His skills haven’t eroded much, shown earlier this month when he waited for Winnipeg goaltender Connor Hellebuyck to go down and scored the winning goal.
“He’s not adding in a lot of spectacular ways, just good, solid play from the spot he is in the lineup,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “When you see him score a goal like the game-winner he did here with that nice patient play, it kind of reminds you that he is a guy who scored 48 in this league, even though it might have been a few years ago.”
Gionta scored 48 with the New Jersey Devils in 2005-06. He’s not that player anymore, though he still gets power-play time and occasional shifts on the top line. He’s fit in best during the last 85 games playing in a checking role alongside centers Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons.
The steady production makes it clear this won’t be the last year for Gionta, who is in the final season of a three-year deal. He sure doesn’t feel 38.
“You can’t put a number on it, but I feel good,” he said. “I feel really good. The body feels good. I feel fresh. It’s just a number to me.
“I look forward in the fact that I want to continue playing, and that’s about it.”
The question could become where Gionta will play. The Rochester native has embraced the rebuild challenge near home. If the Sabres become a playoff team, he’s not going anywhere and will captain the team into the postseason.
If they continue to stumble, his future gets murky. He had a no-movement clause during the first two seasons of his deal, but it transitioned to a limited no-trade this year.
If Buffalo is out of it at the trade deadline, there would be plenty of interest for a reliable leader who has captained two teams and is on pace to get his 1,000th game of experience in a couple of months.
“That’s out of your control,” Gionta said. “The only thing you can control is on the ice, and I’ve had it before throughout my career where your contract’s up. You can’t worry about what’s going to happen.
“Being where I am now, I’ve learned to basically just go out there and control what you can control.”
What he and the Sabres can control is their play. The roller coaster needs more exhilarating moments and fewer jarring dips.
“I want to continue what’s here,” Gionta said. “I want to continue the job I thought I’d be a part of.”