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COMMENTARY

Sabres stay mentally strong as the champs are the ones who crack

Mike Harrington

Mental strength.

Those were the two words Ralph Krueger used to describe a trait he saw on the ice and on the bench Tuesday night in KeyBank Center.

The Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues were in town. The way they transformed their season last year, you sure would have thought that was a reference to them.

Guess again. Krueger was talking about his team. And he was bang-on.

The Sabres beat the champs, 5-2, Tuesday night because they never cracked. They scored the first goal and were tied. They took a 2-1 lead on Johan Larsson's goal with 8.6 seconds left in the second period and got tied again early in the third.

And they refused to wilt. The champs were the ones that did.

Want some fun with numbers? The Sabres are 13-0-0 when leading after two periods this season. They're 4-1-3 in the last eight games overall, 9-3-3 at home for the season.

And they're in second place -- yes, I said, second place -- in the Atlantic Division.

Let's just say mental fortitude hasn't been a strong point around here the last few years. So why does Krueger think this team is getting it?

"They're keeping it really simple," he said. "How much have we spoken about small picture, constant improvement? That's it. Real simple processes. To get there on a daily basis in this league is really difficult."

The Blues certainly know that. Every game on the road is an event for them this year. That's the challenge you get as a defending Stanley Cup champion.

Instead of opponents muttering to themselves, "the Blues are in town," they're saying it openly to themselves and their teammates. And with a capital 'B'. It's a big game for everybody now.

"Teams really want to beat you," St. Louis defenseman Colton Parayko said prior to the game. "We know what it takes to win. We've had a good team for a long time. Every night is a challenge whether you're the Stanley Cup champion or not."

The Sabres sure showed what he meant Tuesday on a Sam Reinhart goal just 18 seconds into the game. Victor Olofsson's bank shot off the skate of Blues winger David Perron and Reinhart's stick made the words of old friend Ryan O'Reilly a few hours earlier mighty prescient.

"You notice that everyone starts fast against us. There's no teams kind of easing into the game," said O'Reilly, who didn't have a shot on goal and was minus-3 in the game. "You know it's going to be a team coming at you with their best right away. Everyone's sharp and they're kind of using it as a measuring stick there."

After a solid 13-2-3 stretch, the Blues hit town coming off losses at Pittsburgh (2-0) and at home against Toronto (5-2). This game was a struggle for them as well and they've now dropped three in a row in regulation for the first time in 13 months -- or well before they became a thing in the NHL.

The Blues certainly have some challenges going.

Vladimir Tarasenko, their top sniper and only elite goal scorer is out with a shoulder injury that could keep him sidelined until around the playoffs. Cup hero Jordan Binnington got pulled against Toronto and has been decent (2.45/.921) but not spectacular. O'Reilly has 27 points in 31 games but is minus-7 on the season and has all six of his goals on the road.

"It's a team game and they all understand. Players get injured," said coach Craig Berube. "It happens to every team and we just keep going."

The Blues have solid players up front and a terrific bottom six. They have studs on defense as well. And Jake Allen is a darn good backup goaltender.

But they're in a bit of a rut right now. They let Larsson -- who has been super of late -- go all Johan Perreault on them in the offensive zone and bang in the go-ahead goal.

And what in the world were Robert Thomas, Vince Dunn and captain Alex Pietrangelo doing on Jack Eichel's go-ahead goal? Standing and watching as the Buffalo captain came out from behind the net untouched and said "Thank you, very much" as nobody came near him.

"That's a mistake," Berube muttered. "You can't make them."

Eichel, already to 20 goals, was as surprised as everyone else in the building to have that much room.

"I'll take it," Eichel said. "Most teams probably scout I'm trying to make a pass there. I think with the way I had the puck prepared, it kind of made everyone think I was going to pass it somewhere and they were trying to take my options away."

The Blues have consistently been one of the NHL's postseason clubs. They missed out two years ago on the last day of the season with a 96-point team in a winner-take-all game at Colorado. After 52 years of waiting, they gave their fans the ultimate prize last year with a rebound season for the ages.

Lots of teams, including the Sabres, can learn from their perseverance.

"You have to learn from it. This is a group that doesn't let too many things faze them," Eichel said. "What they accomplished the second half of last season and into the spring was pretty remarkable to see how they turned it all around. Through the adversity, they found a way to win a Cup.

"Series after series, they were able to wear teams down. There was no panic and it comes from being a veteran group together for a while that knows how to be successful. That's something we're trying to establish here."

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