SAN JOSE, Calif. – When the San Jose Sharks tied the score for a third time Saturday night, Ralph Krueger wondered how the Buffalo Sabres would respond.
Marcus Sorensen's goal could have deflated the Sabres. They were playing their third game in four nights on a West Coast road trip that included a blown two-goal lead Wednesday in Anaheim and Carter Hutton's 47-save shutout Thursday in Los Angeles.
Yet the mood never changed on the Sabres' bench. Rather than doubting their ability to score again, Krueger's players were confident they were going to leave San Jose with a win. Less than 10 minutes following Sorensen's goal, Zemgus Girgensons gave the Sabres their fourth lead of the game and they held on to beat the Sharks, 4-3, in SAP Center.
The Sabres, now 7-1-1, finished Saturday tied with the Colorado Avalanche for first in the National Hockey League and returned to Buffalo with a clear understanding of what they need to improve to sustain this success. Additionally, the Sabres learned how they respond to the sort of adverse situations that were problematic last season.
"You’ve got to hit adversity," forward Marcus Johansson, who scored his fourth goal of the season, said. "It’s good for you. You kind of learn about each other. You kind of learn about the group. You realize what happens when things don’t go right. … We’ve stuck with it, and we’ve played some good teams here. This trip, it’s never an easy trip. This is a big one."
The Sabres earned points in each of their first two road games this season, including a season-opening win at Pittsburgh. However, this was their first long trip of the season, and they faced three opponents that are known for possessing a blend of speed and physicality.
Krueger's players struggled with the latter trait Wednesday in Anaheim. The Ducks used body checks, both during play and after the whistle, to irritate Sabres players, and Buffalo could not respond to the momentum swings.
The Sabres allowed three second-period goals to suffer their first regulation loss of the season. They didn't have much time to physically and mentally prepare for the second game of a back-to-back. Their response in Los Angeles: two goals by Casey Mittelstadt and Hutton earned his second consecutive shutout.
While the Ducks and Kings each have a new coach, the Sharks (3-5) are a perennial contender in the Western Conference and benefit from playing in one of the NHL's most difficult venues for a visiting team. The SAP Center crowd roared with every hit and scoring chance for a Sharks player Saturday night.
"I just thought we stuck with the plan that we all agreed upon," Krueger said. "It’s really mentally tough on a road trip like this, three games in four nights against such strong opposition, to be able to then stick with the plan and really do what we need to do on both sides of the puck. That happened right through the game, 60 minutes today. I thought we deserved to win."
The Sabres responded by scoring the first goal for the eighth time in nine games this season, a wrist shot by Johansson that trickled through the legs of goalie Martin Jones. San Jose's Timo Meier beat Linus Ullmark on the power play less than four minutes later to tie the score, but the Sabres were able to handle the momentum swing this time.
They killed two penalties before Mittelstadt deflected Henri Jokiharju's shot for the go-ahead goal at 17:03 into the second period. When Tomas Hertl scored 44 seconds into the third to tie the game again, Jeff Skinner answered with his fifth goal of the season to give the Sabres a 3-2 lead.
"I thought we showed a lot of character and resiliency today," Krueger said. "Giving up three leads and still pulling out the win, we’ve been finding different ways to get things done. But today was really impressive how we stayed on our toes and kept playing for the big W. To finish the road trip off in this manner, I’m just really proud of the performance today from A to Z."
San Jose defenseman Brent Burns' shot ricocheted off Sorensen's skate and into the net only 22 seconds later. Unlike Wednesday in Anaheim, the Sabres didn't slow down when faced with adversity Saturday. They continued to forecheck effectively and cycled the puck in the offensive zone.
That relentlessness led to the deciding goal, when Kyle Okposo forced a turnover and Girgensons managed to snap a wrist shot into the net with 7:45 left in regulation.
"It starts with the guys on the bench," Girgensons said. "Everyone stays positive. There’s not a moment where we think we’re going to lose the game. It’s been like that throughout all these games this season so far. It’s a great thing to see."
The Sharks nearly tied the game a fourth time with their net empty, but Ullmark made 11 saves in the third period to earn his second win of the season.
The trip's finale exposed a few areas in which the Sabres will need to improve. Their penalty kill allowed two more goals and defensive-zone coverage was spotty at times. Additionally, the power play is 3-for-22 dating back to the second period of a 5-4 overtime win over Montreal on Oct. 9.
There were significant signs of progress over the three games, though. Hutton is 5-0 with a league-leading .953 save percentage, and Ullmark made a number of outstanding saves against the Sharks.
Mittelstadt, a 20-year-old center, scored three goals in the final two games, and his line's emergence has given the Sabres four groups of forwards capable of scoring. The Sabres have received at least one goal from 11 different players this season and 18 of the 19 they've dressed in a game have recorded at least one point.
The power play gained traction against the Sharks when Johansson replaced Victor Olofsson on the top unit. Additionally, the Sabres' 5-on-5 play showed significant improvement after they allowed 92 shot attempts Thursday against the Kings.
"It’s just about constant improvement here," Krueger said. "Anything else will just distract us from what’s happening and we have so many areas where we can still get better at and we find something every day and the players are all in. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s fun with hard work and with sacrifice for each other."
However, the Sabres have been here before. Sixteen of the 22 players on the roster are aware how quickly a season can unravel. Buffalo won 10 consecutive games last November, only to finish 27th in the NHL. The goal is to sustain this success for an entire season.
"It’s good to get off to a good start, I think," Skinner said. "Now we have to build off it. It’s one of those things where whatever our record was after these nine games, the goal is going to be the same. We’ve got to improve, we’ve got to get better and we’ve got to keep finding ways to win."