SAINT PAUL, Minn. — Word has circulated around the NHL about what Phil Housley is building in Buffalo. In only six weeks, the Sabres have developed a reputation of hanging around in games before their skill eventually takes over.
After completing a morning skate Saturday morning at Xcel Energy Center, Minnesota Wild coach Bruce Boudreau cautioned reporters of that change. Buffalo is no longer a pushover, no matter the odds, he said. To his credit, and at his own team's expense, Boudreau was correct.
The Sabres, less than 24 hours after a victory over the Winnipeg Jets, roared back from a two-goal deficit to beat the Wild, 3-2, Saturday night, giving Buffalo its first five-game winning streak since 2012 and improving its record to 12-6-2.
Housley's players went into two of the most difficult road arenas in the league and escaped with two wins. Although there are question marks and red flags surrounding this team, the Sabres have finally established an identity.
"It goes to show we have a different group, a different mindset and a different attitude," Jason Pominville, who scored the game-winning goal with only 90 seconds remaining, said after the game.
His teammates have spoken similar words over the past week, however, there was a particular sense of pride after this win. After all, the Sabres beat two of the Western Conference's best and the Tampa Bay Lightning in a four-day span.
Buffalo's amid a six-game in nine nights stretch that will now take them to Pittsburgh, where they'll play the Penguins on Monday night. The Sabres didn't arrive at the team hotel in Saint Paul until late Friday night, and there wasn't enough time for a morning skate.
Still, they overcame another ugly start. The Wild (12-6-2) outshot the Sabres, 18-9, in the first period and dominated play, thanks in part to three Buffalo penalties. Winger Zach Parise gave the home team a one-goal lead only four minutes in on a turnover by Zach Bogosian, and the lead grew to two with defenseman Matthew Dumba's power-play goal at 7:45.
The Sabres looked exhausted. They couldn't get the puck through the neutral zone and were making elementary miscues in their own end. Yet, Buffalo entered the second period with momentum by scoring on a play that powerfully illustrated just how far this roster has come.
Defenseman Jake McCabe joined the rush and passed back to Kyle Okposo, who dished the puck back to Dahlin. The rookie defenseman skated through the circle and his pass to an open McCabe on the backdoor led to a goal at 14:52 into the first.
"Yeah, we don’t like to play in the first period, but it’s been working out for us the past couple games," McCabe joked. "In all reality, we’re very persistent. We stick to our game plan. We don’t change throughout the game, whether we’re up two goals or down two goals, whatever the case may be."
The Sabres do change, though. Over the past week, they've survived despite not adhering to Housley's system, and they only get back into games by doing so. They were outshot 12-11 in the second period and fed off backup goalie Linus Ullmark's success, including his save on Jason Tucker's breakaway.
After failing to generate a shot on goal for more than nine minutes, the Sabres had six in under four minutes during a second-period onslaught. They wore the Wild down until finally, with 7:02 remaining in the third, Dahlin again joined the rush and poked in a rebound to tie the score.
"I give a lot of credit to our guys," Housley said. "It just showed the character of this team, the fight and the battle."
While the Wild failed to take advantage of chances, the Sabres continued to have success in the neutral zone and controlled play in the offensive zone. After Housley moved Pominville back to the top line, the winger collected a deflected pass from Jack Eichel and fired a backhand shot that ricocheted off the post and in with only 90 seconds remaining.
The Wild were 9-0-1 this season when leading after two periods and had lost only once at home. Suddenly, the team that finished at the bottom of the standings the past two seasons had just stolen two points behind the play of backup goalie.
Ullmark stopped 37 of the 39 shots he faced, trumping a remarkable performance by Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk, who nearly weathered the onslaught with 26 saves.
"This shows a lot about our group," Pominville said.