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Mike Harrington: Sabres hope to take flight long-term in wake of wild trip

It was 10 days of crisscrossing the West Coast. Practices in three cities, games in five. A big win to start, two ugly losses in the middle that prompted the season's first crisis point, some major coaching moves and two sensational wins at the end.

There was a downpour in the Arizona desert, the bright lights of the Vegas Strip and the spotlight of LeBron James' home opener that saw several players return to Staples Center to see the Lakers and Houston Rockets throw down jumpers – and fists – just a couple of hours after Buffalo had crowned the Los Angeles Kings.

Yes, that was some road trip the Buffalo Sabres just completed.

The longest jaunt out West since 2003 ended in triumphant fashion, with the Sabres sweeping the Los Angeles-Anaheim portion for the first time since that six-gamer 15 years ago. The record was far from perfect at 3-2 but the hope is that the way the trip ended will impact the rest of the Sabres' season.

The Sabres were in control during Saturday's 5-1 win in LA. But Sunday's 4-2 win in Anaheim has to rate as one of their signature performances in recent years. The Sabres poured 45 shots on goal on old friend Ryan Miller and dominated play for long stretches.

But Miller spent the first 35 minutes flashing his 2010 Vezina Trophy form and when Carter Hutton gave up a soft goal late in the second period to Kiefer Sherwood to put Buffalo in a 2-0 hole, things looked bleak.

Previous Buffalo teams crumbled. This one did not.

"We obviously deserved to win this game, just the way we played," coach Phil Housley said afterward. "But it's a credit to our leadership group for keeping the guys together and as a tight group. They talk a lot in that room, saying the right things and are leading by example. It's a feather in their cap the way they've worked."

"We just never changed the way that we played,” said alternate captain Kyle Okposo. "That second goal could have been a backbreaker for us, but we just stuck with it. We played the exact same way, and we got rewarded.”

More thoughts on the trip compiled at 33,000 feet:

1. Coaching

Housley may have been a little overly stubborn, especially about changing his power play, but he arrived at practice Friday in suburban Los Angeles with a clear plan he devised with his assistants.

Jeff Skinner was going back on Jack Eichel's line and Jason Pominville was moving up to join them. Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt were going on the power play. Patrik Berglund and Johan Larsson were going to get back from healthy scratches to join Zemgus Girgensons on the fourth line.

Dahlin was going to get some of the pressure taken off by dropping to the third pair with Casey Nelson. Jake McCabe went with Rasmus Ristolainen. Marco Scandella went with the rejuvenated Zach Bogosian.

Housley tries to stir up the right mix to get Sabres some offense

Early results say it was a signature moment in Housley's 16 months as Sabres head coach. The forward combinations were faster, the defense more physical, the power play more in sync. Better late than never.

"We can learn a lot from that Los Angeles game," said Larsson. "It's the game you have to play every night. Simple, score on your chances, be good on special teams. That's the NHL. And that game was a really good wake-up call that we carried over."

There's still 73 games left. There will be injuries. All hockey coaches tinker. Housley will do it more, too. But this showed what happens when paper translates to the ice.

"You never know what the outcome is going to be but I just like the way our guys responded in both games, especially in LA," Housley said. "It was really important to get back to .500 and we set ourselves up for a good road trip."

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2. The top line

Skinner is suddenly on a 45-goal pace with five in nine games after his four-goal weekend. For all his skill by the net, it was easy to forget what a ferocious forechecker he can be. And he's already learned to be ready for any pass that might come from Eichel.

Eichel didn't have a goal on the trip but was an absolute beast with the puck the last two games. It's how he has to dominate, because when he's invisible (like he often was in Vegas and San Jose), not much happens with this offense.

Pominville can keep up at age 35, has a nose for the net, is a great passer and is still strong defensively. Perhaps he was miscast as a fourth-liner, although his play with Evan Rodrigues and Zemgus Girgensons is what piqued Housley's curiosity on a move up the depth chart.

3. Veteran influence

Bogosian was brilliant at times over the last three games. He blocked eight shots on his own at San Jose. He fought in each of the last three games -- and players around the NHL had to enjoy his after-the-bout-ended shot on reviled Anaheim center Ryan Kesler on Sunday.

Bogosian's issue is his inability to stay healthy, not his work when he's on the ice. His skating plays well into Housley's scheme and his physicality completely transforms the Buffalo defense.

And don't forget this: His teammates love him. They understand how he's struggled with injuries and admire his work ethic. They listen to him. Coaches and management know it, too. That's why they named Bogosian an alternate captain.

4. Non-Dahlin Swedish connection

Larsson played two strong games at the end of the trip, notably drawing a penalty 17 seconds into the win in Los Angeles and saving the puck on the goal line in the final minute in Anaheim. And Berglund looked much more comfortable after sitting out in San Jose as a healthy scratch.

"We deserved this," Larsson said. "We played good hockey, played in their zone, created chances, had good rushes. Every guy did the same thing, and we were rolling over the lines."

Larsson, generally the team's No. 1 whipping boy on social media, was hurt in the preseason, got a one-game chance in the regular season and was back on the bench for four more. He took advantage of his chance.

"I'm really happy for him," Ristolainen said. "It's tough to see a good friend being injured and then out of the lineup. The way he played the last two games, he's really working hard grinding, giving everything for the team."

Questions going forward

  • How long before there's a goalie controversy? Hutton was mostly pedestrian on the trip and was fortunate the Sherwood goal in Anaheim didn't mean lights out. Linus Ullmark, meanwhile, came within eight minutes of back-to-back shutouts. With the help from Larsson, Hutton redeemed himself quite a bit during the chaotic final minute in Anaheim.
  • When does Tage Thompson go to Rochester? The big forward acquired from St. Louis has no points and was a healthy scratch the last two games as a result of the big line shuffle. Seems unlikely they would just keep him in the press box here.
  • When is Sam Reinhart going to start scoring? Nine games, no goals. His five assists include some doozies, including the feed to Okposo for the first goal Sunday. But Reinhart is coming off a 25-goal season and he didn't get $7.3 million to not put the puck in the net.
  • When is Mittelstadt going to start scoring? Nine games, one assist. Has to be frustrating for a young player, but the coaches showed confidence in him by putting him on the top power play. They're hoping to see the breakthrough.
  • Is Nathan Beaulieu the odd man out on defense based on injury? No word on his status yet after he was hit with a shot late in the game at San Jose. But there's no way Housley is changing this lineup for now.

By the numbers

  • No trick or treat here: The Sabres have five wins in October for the first time since 2011. Remember, they entered this season as the NHL's worst October team by far since the 2013 lockout with a 14-37-6 record.
  • After going 4-3 while playing seven of the first nine games against the Western Conference, the Sabres play 15 of the next 21 against the East. The schedule resumes here Thursday night against Montreal in KeyBank Center and the next road game is Saturday in Columbus.
  • Going nine games into the season without an overtime or shootout is the longest run from opening night for the Sabres since they went 12 games (7-5) in 2011-12.
  • Buffalo's rally Sunday ended the bizarre trend that saw the team scoring the first goal never relinquish the lead at any point in the Sabres' first eight games. There were no ties or lead changes until Skinner brought the Sabres even Sunday night and Ristolainen put them ahead.

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