Phil Housley wanted the Buffalo Sabres to keep it simple. Over the past five weeks, they often passed the puck when they should have shot. They weren't checking enough in the offensive zone and weren't going to the net.
The Sabres were too easy to play against. In Housley's mind, keeping it simple was the solution for all that went wrong in December.
His players proved him right Tuesday night. In perhaps their most dominant performance in nearly two months, the Sabres scored five second-period goals in a 5-1 win over the New Jersey Devils in KeyBank Center.
Buffalo outshot New Jersey, 33-21, and attempted 20 more shots. Five different players scored – including the first NHL goals for C.J. Smith and Lawrence Pilut – and 14 different players had a point in the second period.
"We had 19 guys out there all doing their job," center Evan Rodrigues said. "We stuck to our game plan and didn’t even get away from it in the third. That’s the kind of result we’ll get when we do that."
The Sabres, now 23-14-6, are fourth in the Atlantic Division with 52 points and hold the first wild-card playoff spot – one point ahead of Montreal. They were without Jack Eichel for a third consecutive game, and Sam Reinhart's status was in doubt until warmups after he missed two practices because of an illness.
After watching his offense total 15 goals in the previous eight games, Housley moved Reinhart to the second line with Rodrigues and Conor Sheary. In addition, the defensive pairs were changed to allow Rasmus Dahlin to play on the left side.
Tage Thompson had a team-high six shots on goal, and eight different players had at least two. Though the Devils are seventh in the Metropolitan with 39 points, the Sabres finally applied the same relentless pressure that helped them win 10 consecutive games from Nov. 8-27.
"I think when you play a team game, there’s going to be guys that contribute offensively," Housley said.
Yet, the Sabres somehow trailed 1-0 at the end of the first period after a pass deflected off Devils winger Blake Coleman's skate to beat Carter Hutton only 1:28 into the game.
The Sabres were confident when they entered their dressing room during the first intermission because shots were 11-4 in their favor and they had 13 more attempts. Additionally, every line was putting pressure on the Devils.
The breakthrough finally came when Jeff Skinner's shot below the left faceoff dot went off the crossbar and in for his team-leading 29th goal of the season, tying the score only 1:39 into the second period.
Smith, recalled from Rochester to help with the Sabres' secondary scoring woes, skated around defenseman Steven Santini near the opposing blue line and fired a wrist shot from the right circle that barely crossed the goal line less than three minutes later.
Casey Mittelstadt pushed the lead to 3-1 when he skated around Damon Severson, crashed the net with a backhanded shot and poked his own rebound past goalie Keith Kinkaid.
"This is a big night for everyone to step up here," Hutton, who made 20 saves for his first win in seven starts, said. "Jack’s obviously our leader and we miss him, but at the same time there are a lot of capable guys in this room and they showed that tonight."
Defenseman Jake McCabe was about to head to the bench after blocking a Devils power-play shot when he recognized Rodrigues was positioned for a possible 2-on-1 odd-man rush. McCabe skated down the ice, collected the tape-to-tape pass and shot into the open net for the Sabres' second shorthanded goal of the season.
Pilut, who had at least two shots on goal in each of his previous three games, capped the period with a wrist shot from the right point when Reinhart was setting a screen in front of Kinkaid. The five goals were scored in a span of 16:06 – the first five-goal period at home for the Sabres since November 2009.
"That’s part of our game," Pilut said. "We keep it simple, keep it fast. Use our speed and our pace out there. I felt like that’s what we did."
They have not done that consistently over the past five weeks, even with Eichel in the lineup. The Sabres had a negative-11 goal differential over their previous 17 games and the top line of Skinner, Eichel and Reinhart accounted for 25 of their 41 goals during that span.
This possible breakthrough came at an opportune time.
They travel to Raleigh, N.C., to face the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday and host the NHL-leading Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday. Neither team is likely to have the sort of breakdowns that plagued New Jersey, which was without Taylor Hall, the league's most valuable player last season.
However, that wild second period Tuesday showed the Sabres they could have the roster and simple formula to navigate the season's second half.
"Simplicity in our game was really important tonight," Housley said.