Share this article

print logo

Mike Harrington: Sabres' buy-in to defensive grind keeps them in the hunt

The Sabres have become a great tease. Are they in the playoff race or not? Every time it seems like you write them off, they want to suck you back in.

Case in point being Tuesday's 3-1 win over the New York Islanders. Full marks to Buffalo for beating the Metro Division leaders and the second-place team in the East. Gets them back in range yet again, just two points out of a wild-card slot.

Put it with Sunday's 3-1 loss to Winnipeg that was tied with four minutes to go and they nearly beat division leaders in consecutive games. And while close isn't nearly good enough, here's a better sign.

Remember how this homestand started? It was an utter defensive crisis.

The Sabres got drubbed by Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks, 7-3, and gave up 17 goals in the first three games while going 1-1-1. In the last three games? Just five goals. And one of those was the Jets' empty netter.

The defensive buy-in has suddenly grown. These last two games were taut thrillers befitting playoff time, exactly the kind of games the Sabres haven't played at all in the regular season since 2012.

Grind it out. Grind it out. Grind it out.

"That's all it was. It wasn't pretty hockey out there, that's for sure," said Kyle Okposo. "In the last three games, we've taken a good step in how we need to play defensively. Everybody on the bench knows when we get scrambly for a little bit, we're saying the right things. We're going, 'sort it out'. We stuck with it.

"They're a team that frustrates you and you can't break. They've been relying on that against teams, playing some really good hockey."

Indeed, the Islanders hit town with the NHL's best record since mid-December. But the Sabres made just enough plays.

Jack Eichel had only one shot on goal in the game but his impact was massive with two assists and some strong defensive work. Okposo, who doesn't get enough credit for the way he battles on the puck because of his bloated contract and struggle to finish at the offensive end, kept getting a stick on it in the late going and that ultimately resulted in Johan Larsson's clinching goal.

Okposo gave it up to Eichel.

"Eichs is our best player," Okposo said. "You're able to see the kind of effort he puts in on a nightly basis, especially a night like tonight where there's not a lot of open space. He's not going to be making a ton of highlight-reel plays because there's just not a lot of room out there. But he gets two big assists and is a definite factor in a game. Great to see."

It's also great to see once again how goaltending can make a difference. Linus Ullmark faced only 25 shots but he made 10 saves in the third period and none bigger than Cal Clutterbuck's breakaway when Buffalo was nursing its 2-1 lead.

Former Sabre Chris Drury named GM for Team USA for World Championships
Sabres vs. Maple Leafs: Five Things to Know
Mike Harrington: UB, Bona driving golden era for Big 4 basketball
March Madness history for the Big 4

Sometimes, you need a tough save. Neither Ullmark nor Carter Hutton was giving the Sabres too many in recent games. They're starting to ring some up again now and the difference is obvious.

"For us, it was about keeping the puck out of our net and trying to be opportunistic when we got the chance," said Eichel, now over the 60-point mark (and counting) for the second time in his career. "It was a good game. We checked well. I don't think we got a lot offensively but I don't think we gave up a lot."

There was a lot of maturity in this game for the Sabres. They were patient for their chances and didn't crack much in their own end, although Rasmus Ristolainen made a grievous turnover to lead to the Islanders goal and fell to allow Clutterbuck to waltz in.

They're figuring out when to go on the offense and when to hold back. The cheat that's been in their game far too much lately is finally going away.

As much as coach Phil Housley talks about "shot mentality", he talks nearly as much about "checking detail." That had really gone away in recent weeks. Teams were getting far too much room all over the ice against the Sabres, beating them up the ice out of their zone or just pillaging them once they got into the offensive zone.

The Sabres are showing some structure and thought to their game again.

"We're attacking the game, doing good things with the puck," Housley said. "But even off our forecheck, the guys are realizing when the forecheck is over. We have to reload. Our 'F3' (the last forward into the zone on offense) is doing a good job pushing everything to the outside and our rush coverage is a lot better."

"I thought I did a good job of back pressuring, trying to play hard in our own zone," Eichel said in response to a question about his defensive play. "If you're not going to score, you've got to help the team do other things and I just tried to do that."

So the Sabres are 3-2-1 on this homestand after a roller-coaster ride of six games. It ends Friday night here against the New York Rangers. A win would give them nine points out of 14 -- and that elusive two-game winning streak they have not put together in more than two months.

It won't be easy. The Rangers are basically out of the race but they've been a tough out of late. Their last four games include a shootout win over Boston, a 4-1 triumph over Toronto and Tuesday's 4-3 loss at Winnipeg that saw them leading into the third period.

"It's probably been a bit inconsistent but we have a good test on Friday against a team that's playing good hockey," Eichel said. "It's going to be important for us to come out and have a good effort on home ice to end this homestand."

•••

Like what you see? Sign up today for a 30-day free trial to BuffaloNews.com.

Story topics: / / /

There are no comments - be the first to comment