Jack Eichel quickly surveyed the Buffalo Sabres' dressing room late Tuesday night and noticed his goalie, Linus Ullmark, sitting alone at a stall.
Eichel stopped, waited for Ullmark to look up and congratulated his teammate for a 28-save performance against the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in KeyBank Center. Eichel, the Sabres' 23-year-old captain, then described to reporters how a 5-2 win over the Blues illustrated the identity he and his teammates have forged under new coach Ralph Krueger.
Rather than taking significant risks to try to score goals, the Sabres are playing responsible and with the sort of attention to detail needed against the chip-and-chase offensive attack St. Louis used to wear down the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup final last June.
Believing in Krueger's system, and executing its principles, helped the Sabres (15-11-6) move into second place in the Atlantic Division, and they have earned points in eight of 10 games after winning only three times in November.
"I think we’re starting to form an identity of our group and I think with the confidence Ralph has instilled in us and the way he wants us to play, it’s evident the way we need to play every night to give ourselves a chance to win," Eichel explained. "We take care of the puck, we do the little things. We have two great goalies that have been giving us a chance to win and our back end has been playing really hard. We’re getting some timely scoring and it’s important. It’s huge in this league."
Eichel took over in the third period, scoring the go-ahead goal for a 3-2 lead with 4:14 remaining in the third period and adding an empty-netter to help the Sabres improve to 13-0 when leading after two periods. He has 20 goals through 32 games, only eight off the career-high 28 he scored in 77 games last season.
That extended his point streak to 14 games, only one away from tying the longest in the National Hockey League this season, and he ranks third in the league in goals, only five behind Boston's David Pastrnak. Yet Eichel, in typical fashion, didn't seem interested in talking about himself.
Eichel beamed when recalling Johan Larsson's goal with nine seconds remaining in the the second period for a 2-1 lead, called Ullmark the "backbone" of the Sabres and detailed how Victor Olofsson created a 2 on 1 by drawing two defenders on the shift that ended with the deciding third-period goal.
This was the complete effort that eluded the Sabres in November. Their power-play slump is at 4-for-56 after failing to score on two opportunities against the Blues and St. Louis twice tied the game, including Alex Pietrangelo's goal at 3:52 into the third period to make it 2-2.
However, the Sabres rarely strayed from Krueger's game plan against St. Louis. A Buffalo forward failed to record a shot on goal through the first 12 minutes of the second period, but a second-period power play ignited a rally that resulted in a Zach Bogosian shot ricocheting toward Larsson, who shot the puck off goalie Jake Allen's pad for a 2-1 lead before the intermission.
The Sabres did not allow a shot on goal for the final 7:02 of the second period, and they held St. Louis center Ryan O'Reilly to no shots on goal in 21:34. Most of the Blues' 30 shots were from the perimeter and Ullmark made a number of remarkable saves, perhaps none bigger than his stop on David Perron with an extra attacker on the ice.
"They just never let up on the pressure, and I thought the mental strength we showed on giving up the 1-0 lead, the 2-1 lead and then bouncing right back with the 3-2 lead," Krueger said. "How we managed it down the stretch was definitely the best management of a lead this season by far. The patience and resilience on the inside battling we had to do because they just kept coming in waves and are competitive to the highest degree. It’s a type of game we really haven’t seen this year from anybody, and I thought the group really reacted quickly and adjusted to it well. We’re really pleased with that win today."
Krueger didn't reinvent the Sabres upon arriving in Buffalo. He implemented a different defensive structure that encouraged responsible play away from the puck and has instilled the importance of measuring risk. There is also a focus on wearing down teams, much like the Blues have done over the past calendar year.
The attack began right from puck drop, when Victor Olofsson' shot toward the net was directed into the net by Sam Reinhart for a 1-0 lead only 18 seconds into the game. The Sabres had more shots and scoring chances than the Blues in the first period, though the two teams were tied through 20 minutes because of Troy Brouwer's goal.
Buffalo was strong on the forecheck and its only notable defensive error occurred when Bogosian pinched in the neutral zone on Pietrangelo's goal that made the score 2-2 in the third period.
"It’s just been playing simple," Sabres winger Zemgus Girgensons, who added an empty-netter with 51 seconds remaining in regulation, said. "It’s all about puck management, being careful at the blue lines and getting pucks deep at risk situations. I think that’s been the key. Any team is good when you start turning the puck over. You can make any team look good when you do that, but especially a team that won the Stanley Cup last year. You have to be careful."
Entering Tuesday, the Sabres led the NHL with 26 goals at 5 on 5 dating back to their 3-2 road loss to the Boston Bruins on Nov. 21. In addition to better defensive play from the entire team, Krueger has coaxed more offense from supplementary players such as Larsson and Girgensons.
Larsson has nine points in his last eight games and Girgensons' five goals through 32 games match his total from all of last season.
The Sabres have defeated division leaders in consecutive games and earned their first winning streak since Oct. 19-22. They have finally discovered the sort of consistency that was not evident under former coaches Phil Housley and Dan Bylsma.
"It’s finally starting to bear fruit, all the hard work that we’re putting into it every day," Ullmark said. "Guys are doing a terrific job of sticking with it, even though there have been some rough stretches sometimes. If we just stick with it we’re going to come out victorious in the end. We might not win every night, but we have a good chance."