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How Rasmus Dahlin helped solve one of the Sabres' greatest weaknesses

Even Phil Housley couldn't help himself. When Rasmus Dahlin made a play to set up Jeff Skinner's backhanded overtime goal Tuesday night beat San Jose 3-2 and clinch a 10-game win streak, Housley pumped his fist in joy and celebrated with his coaching staff.

It was the Buffalo Sabres' seventh overtime or shootout win during the streak, and Skinner became the first player to repeat as the hero. During the streak, 17 players have scored in regulation or overtime, and six have scored the winning goal in overtime or the shootout.

Since the Sabres beat the Montreal Canadiens 6-5 on Nov. 8, Skinner has scored 10 of his team-leading 19 goals and he is tied with Jack Eichel with a team-high 11 points. But no player has participated in more on-ice goal celebrations than Dahlin.  It was the 18-year-old's play against defenseman Erik Karlsson, a two-time Norris Trophy winner and fellow Swede, that set the stage for Skinner.

Dahlin, the first overall pick five months ago, has helped solve one of Buffalo's greatest weaknesses – playing 5 on 5 – and has been at the center of some of the streak's finest moments.

"Now it’s not bad," Dahlin said when asked about knowing he was going to join the league's worst team. "So, yeah, this is the best thing that can happen. I just try to bring myself in. It seems like everyone else wanted to change here, too. We want to change this together."

Dahlin leads NHL rookie defensemen with 13 points – two goals and 11 assists – in 25 games. He also ranks fourth among Sabres defensemen in average ice time and is tied for fourth on the team with five power-play points. Vancouver Canucks rookie center Elias Pettersson, Dahlin's former teammate at the World Junior Championship, is generating Calder Trophy buzz with 13 goals among 21 points.

However, Dahlin helped transform the Sabres' attack at 5 on 5 and had them atop the NHL with 36 points entering Wednesday's games. They've generated 60 shots per 60 minutes at even strength with Dahlin on the ice, which ranks first among Buffalo defensemen and is second only to Skinner. The Sabres scored the fewest 5-on-5 goals in the NHL last season and allowed the fifth most.

Their 47.16 Corsi for percentage, which measures shot differential, illustrates how opponents have had more quality scoring chances during 5-on-5 situations.

Adding Skinner and Dahlin has made Buffalo one of the most dangerous teams in the league. That improvement, Housley said, has been the catalyst for change.

"The differential and everything that goes with it, that's a big part of our game," Housley said.

During the streak, Dahlin has been on the ice for more unblocked shot attempts and scoring chances than his teammates. He's also been on the ice for a team-high 12 goals in the 10 games.

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Dahlin has made his share of mistakes. His nine giveaways during the streak lead the team, but he has the awareness and skating ability to recover from his mishaps. He doesn't lack confidence, either.

Dahlin came to Buffalo expecting to win. He didn't care about the past. Facing elite players hasn't rattled him. Dahlin handled his matchup Nov. 10 against Pettersson with grace and expressed excitement last month in San Jose when he was able to face Karlsson.

Dahlin outplayed one of the league's best defensemen in overtime Tuesday night. He beat Karlsson to a loose puck on the right-wing boards, passed behind his back with Karlsson in pursuit and poked at the puck near the slot to draw Sharks goalie Martin Jones out of the crease.

Skinner skated in to grab the puck and fooled Jones with a backhander for the game-winning goal.

"Ras made a great play going to the net," Skinner said. "Made their goalie commit. I just kind of walked into one that was in the slot."

Dahlin wasn't starstruck when he walked into Little Caesars Arena last Saturday, even though Nicklas Lidstrom, the best Swedish defenseman in NHL history, and many other great players from his country, played in Detroit. Instead, Dahlin was overjoyed to play against Red Wings winger Christoffer Ehn, a decade-long friend who grew up in Dahlin's neighborhood.

"Very special moment," he said smiling.

Dahlin isn't solely responsible for how well the Sabres are playing. Carter Hutton has eight consecutive wins, the penalty kill is among the league's best, Eichel's play has reached another level and Buffalo is receiving secondary scoring. Oh, and Skinner's on a one goal-per-game pace during the streak. But Dahlin has executed Housley's system to near perfection.

Dahlin and Rasmus Ristolainen give the Sabres elite puck-moving defensemen – unprecedented depth considering they were without Zach Bogosian for all but 18 games last season. Like his teammates, Dahlin hasn't been afraid to step in front of a shot, blocking six over the past 10 games.

Housley also trusts him on the power play and during overtime, when teams skate 3 on 3. Dahlin ranks ahead of Ristolainen, Bogosian and Jake McCabe in time spent in the offensive zone, leading to scoring chances. Of all that has changed since a last-place finish in April, adding the teenage defenseman might have altered the course of the franchise.

"We are like this right now," Dahlin said, putting his hands together. "I don’t know how to describe it. Everyone sticks together. We go out there and it’s a war. Everyone’s does everything they can to win."

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