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Mike Harrington: After a wacky first half, Sabres have a good pace going

So you woke up on the morning of Oct. 4 full of optimism for this Sabres season. Rasmus Dahlin, Carter Hutton and Jeff Skinner were on board with Casey Mittelstadt and Linus Ullmark here full time (OK, Patrik Berglund was here, too, but go with us on this one).

Then came that horrible season-opening clunker, a 4-0 loss to the Bruins that looked awfully similar to many of last year's 57 losses (57!). Phil Housley stood at the podium defiantly that night and said, "We are not going to go through this again."

He was right. The Sabres hit the halfway mark of the season with Thursday's 4-3 win over the Florida Panthers. They have 50 points, right on pace for 100. Sure, their pace was 119 points a little over a month ago but did anyone expect that?

Realistically, who predicted 100 three months ago?

The Sabres are in the midst of, ahem, a process that got skewed by their 10-game winning streak. During the uncertain days of October, playoff contention in March was the goal for the season. During the halcyon days of November, you had folks monitoring Presidents' Trophy standings and pondering how many playoff rounds we might see come spring.

December was a reality check. The Sabres aren't as nearly as good as they seemed during the winning streak – when nine of the 10 wins were by a goal and seven came in overtime or shootouts. They also aren't nearly as bad as they looked in going 4-6-3 in Santa's month.

They're on target for what they must have this season: Meaningful games in March. Of course, now expectations are changed, too. Missing the playoffs isn't an option. It would be a colossal failure, an ugly footnote to history because only the 2016-17 Philadelphia Flyers have failed to make the party after posting a double digit winning streak during the season.

The Sabres attacked this game from the start, like they needed to without Eichel. They had lost the previous two meetings with Florida this season despite leading by a goal after two periods. Here they were again Thursday with a 2-1 lead through 40 minutes.

And even though the third period was clearly harried at times, Housley was right when he said there didn't seem to be much panic in the Sabres' game. Especially when you consider Buffalo was just 1-3-4 in one-goal games since the winning streak ended more than a month ago.

Still, this one was more of a struggle than it should have been. The Sabres had a 3-1 lead and a two-man advantage early in the third period. They didn't score what would have been a please-drive-home-safely goal and kept the Panthers in the game. Florida responded twice to make things nervewracking but Buffalo held firm.

Two goals from Jeff Skinner, a goal and an assist from Sam Reinhart and 35 saves from Linus Ullmark did the job. But it wasn't like only the big names did anything on this night. With Eichel out, the Sabres need more from everyone.

Tage Thompson had a goal. Lawrence Pilut was plus-3. Johan Larsson (13-8) and Evan Rodrigues (8-2) combined to win 68 percent of their faceoffs. Rasmus Ristolainen (28:20) and Jake McCabe (24:20) were minutes munchers. And the Sabres finally got a bad game in the opposition net from Roberto Luongo, who looked the part of a 39-year-old on this night.

"I think everybody has to contribute. This is contribution by committee," Housley said.

The Sabres got the plays they needed from Skinner, who has to really take another step up with Eichel out. While it's goofy that the NHL's second-leading goal scorer couldn't crack the crowded Atlantic Division roster for the All-Star Game, he's still alive in the Last Men In vote.

"I'm trying as much as I can," said a smiling Ullmark. "We're all trying."

Ullmark, by the way, is 9-1-3 and has won four straight starts. The team has scored 15 goals for him in that stretch (3.75 per game). It has scored just 1.67 per game in Carter Hutton's last six as the starter has gone 0-4-2.

"I wish we could have it every game," Ullmark said. "I'm not really satisfied just when I play. 'Hutts' is playing really well when he's out there so it's not his fault or anything. We got puck luck. We have to keep on grinding and that puck luck will be many more games going forward."

The Sabres finished last year with 25 wins and 62 points. They're already at 22 wins and 50 points. There's certainly flaws on this team but keep that big picture in mind. They're in the race for real. They need to get healthy and stay healthy. GM Jason Botterill needs to keep tinkering with the roster.

The second half starts Saturday night in Boston. Contention is here. Back in October, Housley couldn't have imagined it.

"Basing it off last year, I'd be pretty happy," Housley said when asked about the 100-point pace. "This was a big game for us. Florida, we haven't had very good fortune against them lately and they've been playing terrific hockey. Our guys found a way to win but there's lot of work to be done ahead of us."

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