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Mike Harrington: Sabres' defense keeps adding offense

We pause from the relentless string of Jeff Skinner updates — or should we change the name to Jeff $$$kinner? — to raise a post-Thanksgiving glass to the Buffalo Sabres' defense.

The blueliners set up all three goals in Friday's they-did-it-again, 3-2 overtime win over Montreal that extended Buffalo's winning streak to eight games. That's 12 goals, 39 assists and 51 points in 23 games for a group of six that was beaten up on the ice and in the court of public opinion last season, but got Rasmus Dahlin added this season.

The defense, remember, had no goals last season until December. Phil Housley and new assistant Steve Smith are getting just a tad more out of them this year, with the average of 2.21 points per game far exceeding last year's 1.38.

Rasmus Ristolainen was a flat-out beast in overtime. He blew by Max Domi to draw the penalty to set up the game-winning power play and had three shots, two on goal, in the extra session.

Ristolainen, who beat the Canadiens in OT on Nov. 8 in Bell Centre, seemed bent on doing it again Friday.

"Every overtime I play, I want to get the goal," he said. "I want to win it. It's a chance for someone to step up and I feel I'm pretty strong in those possessions."

The Sabres left Montreal little chance in overtime. Jack Eichel did some great work on puck control with Ristolainen and Dahlin firing from out top. It was Dahlin's shot that eventually worked its way to the goal for Skinner to find and bury for the game-winner.

"Four-on-three, that was probably one of the best ones I've been here for in six years," Ristolainen said. "We moved the puck for each other, we took shots and it looked pretty good. Best so far in my six years. Usually we hold on to the puck. Everyone wants to score so much. I think we were pretty good there."

The Sabres' first goal came when Jake McCabe expertly shot to the high slot to find a tip chance for Conor Sheary. The play worked and Sheary's tip hit the post, allowing Casey Mittelstadt to tap it in.

Goal No. 2 came when Zach Bogosian drove a low, hard shot from the right point on net and Skinner came from the opposite side to volley home a backhand to tie the game with 2:34 left.

"As many shots as we can get through and generate some offense from back there, I think it's huge for us," Bogosian said. "There's a bunch of guys that can shoot the puck and see the game very well.

"As a group we're doing a better job of that this year and we have to continue to do that. We enjoy playing offense no matter who is in the lineup. All the guys are looking to add to that offense."

McCabe is on a 30-assist, 37-point pace that would blow away all of his career numbers. Bogosian is playing his best hockey as a Sabre. Dahlin's 12 points are tied for third in rookie scoring and tops among first-year defensemen. Ristolainen has the same 2-10-12 line as Dahlin.

"They're just doing a good job of finding the lanes and getting pucks through," Housley said. "If we can continue to do that, our forwards are going to continue to go there."

He's talking about the front of the net, where the Sabres are making a living converging on loose pucks and causing chaos down low.

Skinner is doing that about as well as anyone in the league right now. Skinner and Eichel simply outworked three Montreal players for the loose puck that became the winning goal.

"Before this year, I used to hate to play against him," Ristolainen said of Skinner. "It was hard to catch him. He was pretty strong for a little guy, the smile on his face and the swagger he has. He's a great player for us now."

Skinner caps another comeback with overtime goal, sending Sabres to eighth straight win

You have to love the patience the defense is showing. McCabe took time to assess the scene and find Sheary. So did Bogosian, after strong work on the wall by Eichel. No hot-potato with the puck. Just a heavy shot that Antti Niemi kicked out a huge rebound from, just as the Sabres hoped.

"I know I'm probably not blowing it by him," Bogosian said. "I'm just trying to get it on net and Skinny is going hard back door. It was a play we didn't draw up or anything but it's a good hockey play and Jack sets that whole thing up."

And so it goes for this club, which actually ended the game first in the Eastern Conference for a few hours until Tampa Bay shredded Chicago.

It's just the eighth time in franchise history the Sabres have won at least eight in a row. Want some perspective on that? The franchise's two Stanley Cup final teams, in 1975 and 1999, never had a winning streak this long.

You have to keep updating the numbers when a team is on a roll like this.

The Sabres 10-0-2 when scoring first, 9-0-2 when leading after the first period, 10-0-1 when leading or tied after two periods.  For the first time since 2014, they have won five straight games at home and four straight overall against the Atlantic Division.

Here's a big one: Buffalo is 8-0-2 in one-goal games with a league-best .900 points percentage. That's how playoff teams roll. You know the forwards are good enough. Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark are getting the job done in goal. And the defense is making its mark too.

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