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Hard effort earns Sabres a light practice

It was a light practice that lasted 30 minutes in KeyBank Center Wednesday morning. Jack Eichel and Evander Kane didn't even skate, earning a maintenance day after Tuesday's 3-1 win over the Washington Capitals.

Overall, the guys were tired. And that's a good thing.

That's how bodies are supposed to feel after a win — a little bit spent. It's another step in the right direction as the Sabres look to turn the corner on a disappointing start.

"Guys are tired today as they should be," Sabres forward Kyle Okposo said. "That's how it feels to win. That's how we've got to play to win."

"You can tell everyone left it out there," Ryan O'Reilly added. "That's what we wanted. We have to get that mentality all the time."

The lighter on-ice practice was a kind of reward for the consistent effort the team showed in Tuesday's win. With two days between games, Sabres head coach Phil Housley had that option and said the coaches spent some time in the locker room before practice, reinforcing what the players did right and correcting what can be better.

But nothing really takes the place of that all-out effort.

"It's a tough league. The parity right now is tighter than it's ever been and anybody can beat anybody, so you have to realize how hard you have to work to get the result," Housley said. "Last night the guys really made a choice to work hard away from the puck. It just seems the more you do that, the more you have it. And it does take hard work, especially the reloading part, coming back into our zone and defending well.

"There's going to be times during the game where you're going to have to defend, but I thought we did a really good job of closing and battling and competing in that area," Housley said. "It takes a lot of wear and tear, but you come back the next day and you feel a lot better after a win, obviously than a loss. But we have to get back to work. We have a lot of work ahead of us, still."

No one is sounding the victory horn just yet. The Sabres have not arrived. But Tuesday's game was a complete effort, most notably the defensive game from the team's forwards.

After the win, goaltender Robin Lehner said it was the best defensive game the forwards had played all season.

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Wednesday, he expanded on that sentiment, noting the Sabres kept odd-man rushes at bay and that the centers, particularly O'Reilly and Eichel, were key at breaking up passes in the defensive zone.

"I don't think we had an odd-man rush yesterday. Just every forward really was fighting to get back, back checking, tracking back well," Lehner said. "I think a lot of the big defensive plays that were broken up came from our forwards and especially our centers. I think (Washington) tried to go cross-ice and I think especially Ryan and Eichel did a really good job of taking away some passes. I thought all forwards did, but I think Eichel took away between two to four Grade-A chances with being in the right spot and a good stick. It was really good to see. I think it was a great two-way game."

Being in the right spot with the right energy. It's about mentality. And it's about following the game plan. Tuesday's win was good to see, but Lehner explained it also was a bit frustrating.

"I think we were good in all three periods," Lehner said. "I had to make some saves, but it wasn't many and as I said there were no odd-man rushes yesterday which is how the good teams do it. Once in a while you get an odd-man rush on a mistake or a bad break, but we've been giving away odd-man rushes because we haven't followed our game plan. And yesterday we followed our game plan.

"It's so nice and also frustrating to see because when we play like this, we're just a hell of a hockey team I think. But then we get away from it. I just really hope we all understand that's the way we've got to play."

The Sabres next play back-to-back games this weekend, hosting the Florida Panthers at 7 p.m. Friday in KeyBank Center before flying to Montreal to take on the Canadiens on Saturday.

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