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COMMENTARY

Especially in their division, Sabres need to keep finding a way

Mike Harrington

Find a way. That's how Jack Eichel summarized it. Simple and accurate.

What we saw Wednesday night was a fun game, an ugly game and a weird game all wrapped into one. We're used to seeing the Sabres just do enough things wrong to let those type slip away.

This was refreshing.

The Sabres trailed after one period against Montreal in KeyBank Center, rallied to grab control, blew a two-goal lead in the third and finally won it in overtime. Good for them.

The key Sabres point from the 5-4 OT thriller shows the white-hot power play scoring two more goals to push its NHL-leading total to eight through four games (and Marcus Johansson's winner was essentially another one, but the penalty had just ended).

Eichel's four-point night included a roof-raising rush from end to end that was completely Perreault-esque. Rasmus Dahlin had two more assists -- and leads all NHL defensemen in scoring -- but also had a frustrating game with the puck, especially in the neutral zone.

Victor Olofsson scored again on the power play. Carter Hutton had one of the better four-goal games you'll see a goalie play. Colin Miller made a sick feed to Johansson on the winner.

How important is this set of Wednesday vs. the Habs and Friday vs. Florida? Now, it's still October. But it's a tone-setter for sure.

Since the Atlantic Division was created in 2013, the Sabres entered Wednesday just 63-87-26 in divisional games, or 63-113 to me when you're talking wins and losses. And that's never going to cut it. Remember, the playoffs are all about divisional formats. The top three teams make it, and the maximum of two wild-cards in a conference means no wild-card can ever finish below fifth.

If the Sabres never get higher than sixth in their division -- and last year was the first time they even got that high in the Atlantic -- it's mathematically impossible to make the playoffs.

If we go on the likely assumption that the top three teams in the Atlantic in some order will be Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto, that leaves the Sabres likely battling with which two teams from their division for wild-card contention?

Yep. Montreal and Florida.

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DIVISIONAL DOLDRUMS
The Sabres' record vs. Atlantic Division teams since the division was formed in 2013
Year    Record
19-20     1-0-0
18-19     11-12-5
17-18    11-14-3
16-17    13-13-4
15-16    11-14-5
14-15    10-16-4
13-14      7-18-5
Total     64-87-26 

"We're still learning and growing and trying to develop a game, trying to put a stamp on the Sabres style of hockey here," he said. "That's all we're doing every day and all that other noise will take care of itself."

The coach understandably doesn't want to get involved in the chatter. Of course, that's our job to produce some of that noise.

The Sabres have had pretty good success with the Habs over the last few years, now 4-1 in the last five meetings and 8-7-3 in the last 18. It's another thing entirely with Florida, against whom they are 1-7-1 in last nine overall -- and just 1-8-2 in the last 11 on the road in the often-empty BB&T Center.

The Panthers are here Friday night. About time the Sabres do something against them.

"We don't care what's been before or anything. This is us now," Johansson insisted. "This is what we're doing right here and right now. One game at a time. That's the way we see it. So far we've done pretty well and we want to get better every day. "We're just looking forward. It doesn't really matter what's happened before."

You have to like the approach.

The Sabres will need it going forward against Toronto, for instance, when they try to snap their first five-game skid against their QEW rivals since 1972. Their records against Boston (4-3-1 in the last 8) and Tampa Bay (3-3-1 in the last seven) aren't bad at all.

And obviously you can't discount games against the Metropolitan Division either. The Sabres already own wins over Pittsburgh and New Jersey in front of Monday's overtime loss in Columbus.

"Every game is important," Johansson said. "Even last game, we didn't play our best but coming back and getting one point can be huge. You never know how much that point is going to mean in the end.

And even with the ups and downs of the night, you had to like the response. The Sabres were outshot, 44-18, Monday in Columbus and were lucky to get one point. They worked hard to get an Olofsson goal with 1:14 left only to lose in OT when Nick Foligno stole the puck from Eichel in the corner to set up the winning goal.

Buffalo did a nice job of producing against the Habs with a 39-27 edge in shots on goal -- the third time in four games they had at least 36.

"The other night was frustrating for a lot of us, especially myself. I wasn't very good," Eichel said. "It was important for our group to come back and play well at home. As much as I think there's some things there we probably want to clean up and get a little better at, there's a lot of positives out there."

The Sabres are 3-0-1 and this is the first time since 2009 they've gone through their first four games without a regulation loss. This is the first time since 2008 they've won their first two home games. They have 18 goals through four games, the club's most in the opening quartet since 2007.

Krueger is right. Keep things small. So is Eichel. Keep finding a way.

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