So when the casual what's-this-been-like question was posed to Jason Pominville around the noon hour Tuesday, he didn't answer at first. He laughed. Not at the question, mind you. But at the shocking way the Buffalo Sabres seem to be getting through every game.
"It's been fun, a lot of fun," Pominville said of the six-game winning streak that suddenly has propelled Buffalo into the high-rent district of the NHL standings. "I'll tell you what, it's been wild how we're finding ways to win. We didn't have many leads but we battled back to have them at the right time. Different guys stepped up, our goalies played great and the resiliency we've shown is pretty crazy."
After a seven-day stretch in which the Sabres beat Tampa Bay, Winnipeg, Minnesota and Pittsburgh, they're up to fourth overall in the NHL. They're three points behind Presidents' Trophy-leading Nashville, two behind Atlantic Division-leading Toronto after Monday's Houdini act in Pittsburgh, where a 4-1 deficit became a 5-4 overtime victory.
They're seven points inside the playoffs -- yes, inside them. Five points ahead of defending Stanley Cup champion Washington. Ten points ahead of Sidney Crosby-less Pittsburgh. Nine points ahead of the flying Connor McDavids in Edmonton and 11 in front of poor Ryan O'Reilly, now losing again in St. Louis. And those two teams sent coaches Todd McLellan and Mike Yeo packing within the last day.
Maybe this is blasphemy, but it's sure starting to feel like 2005-06 around here.
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) November 20, 2018
No, not the way that season ended one win shy of the Stanley Cup final. The ending to the story is months away from being written. But it certainly feels like the way it began.
There were no expectations on the '05 Sabres, just like in the fall of 2018. Thirteen years ago, fans were fed up and empty seats were plentiful as the NHL returned from its yearlong lockout. Same thing this year, as fans were clearly in show-me mode after seven straight years of non-playoff hockey that included three last-place finishes.
Three times this year, the announced tickets-sold count has been under 16,000. You'd be hard-pressed to say there were even 10,000 people in the building for the Oct. 30 overtime loss to Calgary. Veteran observers agreed it was the smallest non-snowstorm crowd they've seen downtown since early in '05.
Don't imagine that will be repeated anytime soon. If this continues, there will be a storming of the KeyBank Center gates just like we saw 13 years ago. The night before Thanksgiving is a big one anyway. But the sense is that fans are ready to leap feet-first onto the bandwagon and the Philadelphia Flyers might have some noise — and lots of fannies in seats — to deal with here Wednesday night.
(And you wonder how many season ticket-holders are now regretting the sellout job they pulled dumping their tickets for the Black Friday matinee against Montreal. Tsk, tsk.)
"This will be a fun atmosphere here the next two games," Pominville said. "Thanksgiving, families come back in town. A lot of relatives will be here and there's hype around the team so I'm sure the building will be rocking. It will be fun. Guys have already talked about that."
"The atmosphere should be one of a kind for tomorrow night," added Sam Reinhart. "It's something I haven't experienced. We know the passion, both good and bad, our fans bring. Hopefully they'll be there right from the warmups getting us into it."
You can feel things building here just like in 2005, and it was around this time when the Sabres got rolling. A six-game winning streak and 10-2-2 burst now, a seven-game run and 15-1-1 burst then.
The fans started pouring back into the building, rekindling the spirit for the game they had in the 70s, 80s and 90s but suddenly lost because of the lockout and the franchise's bankruptcy seasons. Times have been tough in the post-tank era as well but it seems like Wednesday could be the first time longtime fans and another generation can again connect with the club thinking it has a real chance.
For the first time in years, the Sabres can score so they're never out of a game. Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark are getting the job done in goal, often keeping things close until the offense gets in gear. Rasmus Dahlin eased into the first 10 games of his initial season and is now suddenly tied for the scoring lead among rookie defenseman and is tied for fifth among rookies overall.
The Sabres are 7-0-2 in one-goal games. They've already won five games when trailing after two periods -- second in the NHL and a figure that equaled the number they won all of last year. The 2005-06 team had a good group of veterans with some emerging leaders and strong prospects. So does this one, although it overall trends younger with Reinhart at 23, Eichel at 22 and kids like Casey Mittelstadt and Dahlin still teenagers.
An OT winner is always special.
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) November 20, 2018
"We're excited where we're at, obviously, and the vibe around town, they (the fans) are showing their appreciation of the work," coach Phil Housley said Tuesday after his team met and had an optional skate in the arena.
Housley then understandably stayed coachy, pointing out the Flyers will be "desperate" as they hit town on an 0-2-1 lull with AHL callup Alex Lyon in goal, and that the Sabres have to start games better.
OK, he's got a point there. There are concerns. You can't come back every game and the Sabres have to start answering the opening faceoff. The season goal differential of plus-5 is low for a team this high in the standings, largely because there have been three blowout losses mitigated only by the 9-2 win over Ottawa.
And there have been no major injuries yet. The rest of the Atlantic Division, meanwhile, is taking body punches with the losses of Andrei Vasilevskiy, Auston Matthews, Zdeno Chára and Charlie McAvoy. Florida's Vincent Trocheck was stretchered off the ice Monday in Ottawa with a bad-looking leg or ankle injury and Boston announced Tuesday that center Patrice Bergeron is out at least four weeks with a rib injury.
It's easy to forget how quick this can turn. Before the current stretch, the Sabres were just 1-2-2 in their previous five games. But they have enough young players and newcomers who really don't know any better.
"They don't have some of the scars that the other guys have," said winger Kyle Okposo. "The guys who know what we've been through the last couple years really appreciate this, and the amount of effort and amount of work it takes to do this. I think we're just scratching the surface. ... There's still a lot to learn but we're definitely taking time to enjoy this too."