For all the Buffalo Sabres' faults in Phil Housley's second season as coach, the franchise now possesses tantalizing offensive talent that can compete with the NHL's best.
At times, that strength has been a weakness. Gifted offensive players such as Jack Eichel or Casey Mittelstadt have an unwavering confidence that they can make the most difficult plays. That has led the Sabres to pass up open shots in search for the perfect scoring opportunity, particularly on the power play.
Alas, following a change in lines, the Sabres' dynamic players again bought into Housley's plea for simplicity, and the result was two power-play goals in a 3-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday afternoon in KeyBank Center.
The Sabres, now 27-20-7 with 61 points, are 5-for-10 on the power play this month after a 1-for-25 performance in January. This was one of their finer defensive performances in weeks and Linus Ullmark made 28 saves. However, power-play goals from Mittelstadt and Kyle Okposo allowed Buffalo to hold a third-period lead rather than chasing to tie the score.
"I think the power play is really doing a good job possessing the puck in the zone," Housley said afterward. "I would like to see them shoot a little bit more. You saw two goals that came by just getting pucks to the net, but they have done a terrific job in the month of February. It’s been a whole different story than it was in January. … We’re going to need them, especially in tight games like this."
Housley was unable to dedicate a significant portion of the little practice time he had to fixing the power play because the Sabres were forced to revisit the importance of finishing a check or being responsible without the puck. He and assistant coach Davis Payne would review weaknesses and basic tendencies through watching previous games, yet only so much can be accomplished on a whiteboard or through conversation.
Following a shutout loss in Dallas on Jan. 30, and a 1-for-3 showing against Chicago two days later, the Sabres revealed new-look power-play units this week with Mittelstadt skating with Eichel, Jeff Skinner, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Dahlin.
The Sabres scored on both their opportunities in a 5-4 win Tuesday against Minnesota and went 2-for-3 Saturday afternoon.
After a failed attempt earlier in the second period Saturday, Dahlin received a pass near the blue line and sent the puck into the left faceoff circle, where Eichel immediately passed through three Red Wings to find Mittelstadt in the right circle. Mittelstadt's errant back-door pass attempt to Reinhart managed to find the back of the net for a 2-0 lead at 10:05 into the second period.
"I was excited when they told me I was going to work with those guys," Mittelstadt, who has eight goals in 54 games, beamed. "I knew I was ready. It doesn't change my job, though. I still have to move the puck well and keep possession. Both groups are doing that well right now."
Following Dylan Larkin's second-period goal to cut the deficit to one, Skinner drew a holding penalty against Michael Rasmussen. Twenty-one seconds later, with the Sabres' second power-play unit on the ice, Okposo collected the puck in the right-wing circle, patiently waited for a hole to emerge and fired a short-side snap shot over Jimmy Howard's glove for a 3-1 lead.
“Obviously when your [power play] clicks it helps the team out a lot," Okposo explained. "It creates some momentum. It created a couple big goals for us today so it’s definitely nice to see.”
Power-play success cannot only be measured by goals. After all, possession and shots create momentum — as Okposo noted — while wearing down an opponent, particularly a struggling one such as the Red Wings, who entered the game with the third-fewest points in the Eastern Conference.
The Sabres' recent offensive success — both on the power play and during 5-on-5 — stems from improved play with the puck. Their passes and zone entries have been crisp as of late. As important, they are getting the puck to the net, though they managed only four shots on goal in three power plays against Detroit. Entering Saturday, they had the fourth-most shots in the NHL over their previous 10 games.
"Our net-front guys have done a really good job all year long," Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen said. "They've been there. Maybe before these last few games, we just weren't shooting the puck enough. You've got to move it around but when you get the chance, you've got to take the shot. We've been pretty good at recovering the puck so that's been helping us too."
For much of this season, the Sabres have struggled to get an important insurance goal, and Okposo's helped them improve to 13-1-3 this season when leading after two periods. Like others around the NHL, they are a better defensive team when leading as opposed to chasing a deficit or trying to break a tie. Conor Sheary's goal at 1:15 into the second period — his ninth of the season — to make it 1-0 seemed to help the Sabres' defensive play.
"This is the way we have to play if we want to win games," Evan Rodrigues said. "It's not a hard recipe. ... We have enough talent to bury chances on power-play goals. That's what it comes down to. We defend, we're going to win."