Ralph Krueger's plan to fix the Buffalo Sabres began with a request for his talented forwards to sacrifice some of their offense.
A run-and-gun approach crashed and burned under Phil Housley. Krueger implemented a defensive-zone structure that forced the Sabres to weigh risk versus reward. His thinking was that forming proper habits without the puck would eventually lead to more offense and provide players with the sort of two-way game needed to break their eight-year playoff drought.
That plan produced mix results over the season's first two months, yet encouraging signs emerged over the final week of November. A possible breakthrough finally arrived Monday night in KeyBank Center, as the Sabres rode a five-goal first period to a resounding 7-1 win over the New Jersey Devils.
Six different players scored at least one goal for Buffalo (13-10-5) and 11 had at least one point to push the Sabres' record to 3-1-2 over their last six games. Their 25 goals over the past seven games rank first in the National Hockey League during that span, and Krueger's plan has them sitting third in the Atlantic Division.
"The language within the room is we really feel like we’ve settled into a game that’s pretty consistent without the puck and that’s what all the hard work was about, is making sure we understand what we need to do defensively to be strong as a team and give ourselves a chance every night," Krueger said. "Now, it looks like habits are starting to show up versus always having to process every single step during a game. It’s happening more naturally now and that definitely frees you up on the offensive side, so hopefully we can continue to build on this feeling that we have right now."
The Sabres have not allowed a goal at 5 on 5 in their last 127 minutes, 50 seconds of play, dating back to the third period of their 6-4 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in KeyBank Center on Friday night. Buffalo also has out-scored its opponents at 5 on 5 in eight of the past 10 games.
The shot differential has been deceiving at times, as was the case Monday when the Devils out-shot the Sabres, 45-32. However, Krueger doesn't care about quantity. Quality is what matters and his defensive-zone structure kept most of New Jersey's chances to the perimeter.
In addition to reducing shot quality, Krueger's plan is to clean up second chances in front of the net while generating high-danger chances in the offensive zone and pouncing on loose pucks in front. The Sabres' offensive eruption Monday illustrated how adopting those habits can provide them with supplementary scoring, particularly at even strength.
Following another failed power play, Rasmus Ristolainen retrieved a loose puck on the right-wing wall and fired a pass to the slot, where Jack Eichel's second shot attempt trickled between the legs of Devils goalie Louis Domingue for a 1-0 lead at 2:46 into the first period.
"We’ve been out-chancing opponents for five or six games in a row now," Rasmus Asplund said. "I think it tipped over for us tonight. I think it’s a great confidence boost for the whole group."
Less than three minutes later, Johan Larsson caused a turnover at the opposing blue line and finished his check to allow Jeff Skinner to skate alone toward the net with the puck. Skinner finished with a wrist shot from the right-wing circle for a 2-0 lead.
Conor Sheary, who had gone 19 consecutive games without a goal, scored his first of two Monday by scoring on Skinner's rebound in front of the net to push the lead to 3-0. Devils coach John Hynes immediately called a timeout with his team having only one shot on goal.
It was all for naught.
Sheary scored his second of the game and fifth of the season with 3:19 left in the first period on a wrist shot from near the left-wing wall that ricocheted off Domingue's blocker and over his head for a 4-0 lead.
"The last couple weeks, we feel like we’ve been playing pretty good hockey, and we haven’t gotten a lot of results and part of that is secondary scoring," Sheary said. "The other part is special teams and both of those were good tonight. Hopefully that will give us confidence moving forward."
The onslaught continued with Asplund scoring his first career NHL goal on a wrist shot from behind the left face-off dot for a 5-0 lead with 58 seconds remaining in the first period. Domingue was pulled following the intermission, and the Sabres had five more scoring chances than the Devils in the first period, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
Victor Olofsson's one-timer from the right-wing circle pushed the lead to six goals at 4:40 into the second period. The Sabres have scored at least six goals in consecutive home games for the fourth time in the past 10 years and they had not accomplished that feat since Feb. 5-13, 2011, a season in which Buffalo reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"We talked about it and I think it's been better and better," Larsson said of the Sabres' defensive play. "You can always work on it, but it’s been better. I think that kind of shows up with the puck on your stick and you get more opportunities."
Nico Hischier scored the Devils' only goal during a period in which Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark was forced to make 20 of his 44 saves, and the Sabres were held scoreless during the third. However, a comfortable win was a welcome change after they finished November with three regulation victories in 14 games.
The Sabres rode their power play to 9-2-2 record in October, the second-best mark in the NHL behind the Washington Capitals. Their recent play shows signs that a fast start may not have been an anomaly.
In addition to his first-period goal, Eichel had two assists and has nine goals among 19 points during a 10-game point streak, while Olofsson has five goals among 12 points in the past 13 games. However, the Sabres are showing they're no longer a one-line team. Twelve different players have scored for Buffalo over its past seven games.
Skinner has formed some chemistry with Larsson and Sheary, and Asplund has provided a strong two-way presence in 10 games since being recalled from Rochester. The recent surge at 5 on 5 has helped the Sabres succeed despite their power play, which snapped a 1-for-38 slump with Henri Jokiharju's one-timer for a 7-1 lead in the second period.
“The last six games before this really had been games of good habits and a lot of the offense that we were starting to create hadn’t really functioned that well with goals," Krueger said. "I thought we had a deserved first period, kind of like the fruit of the labor from the week before almost seemed to pay off. ... Just a lot of things happening today that we can build on.”