The Buffalo Sabres lived off their power play through the season's first four games. Now it's gone cold in terms of goals, but they are suddenly figuring out how to generate offense in 5-on-5 play. That kind of balance is a big reason the team has gone 7-1-1 through nine games.
Rookie Victor Olofsson, of course, was one of the keys to the early man-advantage success. He's hoping to join the scoring parade at even strength, too. He can do that if he follows coach Ralph Krueger's advice: throw opponents a few changeups.
"I think that's a real important thing but I don't think it's something that's new to me at all," Olofsson said after practice Monday in KeyBank Center. "I've been off to a hot start every season my last 3-4 years no matter where I've been playing. It's been kind of the same here and now I need to find different ways to get to the net to score."
The Sabres went 0-for-4 on the power play during Saturday's win at San Jose, but had nine shots on goal during those chances. They're only 3 for their last 22 with the man advantage after opening the season 8 for 15. During their 2-1 California trip that ended Saturday, seven of Buffalo's nine goals came at 5 on 5.
"It's good to see the 5-on-5 game going right through the lineup," Krueger said. "What we all know we need is depth scoring and offense coming out of every group. That's probably the most exciting thing – there's scoring chances coming on a regular basis right through the games now. Every line has its own personality. It's coming to that end in different ways and we're enjoying the chances we're creating."
All six of Olofsson's goals this year, and all eight in his 15-game NHL career, have come on the power play. He's been setting up shop in the right circle and firing one-timers at will, but that's no longer going to come as easy when opponents note he's tied with Edmonton's James Neal for the league lead in power-play goals.
As Krueger often has said in the last 10 days or so, opponents have Olofsson's name circled in their scouting reports. That can make life tough on a rookie, who suddenly will see the best penalty killers and best defense pairs on the ice against him.
"Victor is going to go through that evolution now of being somebody that nobody knew his name to seeing him as a threat, especially on the power play," Krueger said. "At 5-on-5, he will grow to be a big threat, too. You're going to get better defensive play against you once you're on the map here. It goes quickly.
"He's a smart kid, continues to play extremely well without the puck, very mature in that regard. He will find new ways and he needs to be unpredictable and bring deception into his game because he's got the skillset to score. I know he will as he grows. We need to be patient with him."
Olofsson was flipped off the top power play in the third period Saturday in favor of Marcus Johansson, but Krueger downplayed the move Monday.
"We're going to be flipping all year long. Don't get married to any group here or any line or any D-pair," Krueger said. "That was an in-game call. Marcus was feeling really good in that game. It was nothing against Victor. It was actually freeing Victor up with another group because it seemed there was an overfocus on him. We trust both groups."
Instead of playing with Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Jeff Skinner and Rasmus Dahlin, Olofsson joined the second unit with Casey Mittelstadt, Conor Sheary, Colin Miller and Rasmus Ristolainen.
"We had two D-men on that unit and it forces you to be more flexible," Olofsson said. "You can't be as static on the one side that I've been used to. I have to go down to the front, go out to the half-wall, move around more."
Those are the kind of strategies that can help get Olofsson going at 5-on-5 as well. He has a 42.9 percent Corsi rating at 5-on-5, the lowest on the team, and that's certainly a product of the difficult matchups he faces playing with Eichel and Reinhart on Buffalo's top line.
"There's always going to be adversity. He's playing against the top defensive pair every night and that's not easy," Johansson said. "What's fun with him is he's always working on stuff and looking for things to get better on. It's a long year. This is just the start. If he keeps working, it's going to come 5 on 5, too, because he's so dangerous."
Because he became a key figure in Buffalo's fast start, it was easy to forget what a neophyte Olofsson really is on the NHL scene. Something as simple as travel to many NHL arenas is going to be new to him.
"It was a great experience for me just to see California for the first time. I had never been there," Olofsson said. "It's some good, heavy teams we played. We would have wanted a better result in Anaheim, but we still had some chances to win that game, too. It was a good trip for us and a great experience.
"It was a place I always wanted to go. It was a little different, for sure. You go outside in the morning, and you can go in just a T-shirt and shorts and then you have to go play a game. It was a fun trip."