DETROIT – In the aftermath of what Ralph Krueger described as a "very painful" third-period collapse Saturday against Vancouver, the Buffalo Sabres' coach wondered if a lack of lineup continuity was becoming disruptive.
Upon further review, Krueger decided the forward lines and defense pairings would continue to change until the Sabres showed they were able to consistently execute his principles. As fate would have it, two players who reportedly no longer wanted to be part of his team ignited the Sabres in what was arguably a must-win game.
Evan Rodrigues and Zach Bogosian, both of whom reportedly expressed an interest to be traded by Buffalo, combined for three goals, their firsts of the season, in a 5-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday in Little Caesars Arena.
Rodrigues scored two goals in the game's first five minutes, the first of which left the 26-year-old grinning on the Sabres' bench, and Bogosian helped them pull away with a goal in the third period. Both likely improved their chances of increased playing time, either in Buffalo or elsewhere.
"At the end of the day, it’s hockey," Rodrigues said. "You keep reminding yourself and keep believing in yourself. I have a belief in myself that I can do it. It was going to go in eventually, and obviously it was nice to see it go in. Hopefully that continues."
The day began with what Krueger called a "pretty serious morning." After breaking down video from Saturday, he and his coaching staff assembled the team to discuss the positives and negatives from the 6-3 loss to the Canucks.
Krueger did not disclose details of the conversation, however, he said players agreed with the coaching staff's assessment. The Sabres had been outscored 11-4 over their previous two games and were sinking in the Atlantic Division standings, nine points behind the third-place Toronto Maple Leafs entering Sunday.
Krueger scratched Jimmy Vesey, a 26-year-old forward who skated on the top line against Vancouver, in favor of Scott Wilson, and kept Colin Miller out of the lineup because of the defenseman's struggles with details in the defensive zone.
With Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson out because of injury, Zemgus Girgensons was elevated to the top line. Despite Krueger saying previously that he intended to only use players who wanted to be in Buffalo, Rodrigues and Bogosian were in the lineup against the last-place Red Wings.
Rodrigues responded with his finest performance in almost a calendar year. After running over defenseman Filip Hronek at Detroit's blue line, Curtis Lazar retrieved the loose puck and set a cross-ice pass to the slot for Rodrigues, who one-timed a shot over Jimmy Howard's blocker at 2:39 into the first period.
"Just keep shooting and obviously, it was a little bit of a relief, but I really didn’t lose confidence," Rodrigues, a pending restricted free agent making $2 million this season, said. Entering Sunday, among NHL forwards to play at least 25 games this season, only five had yet to score a goal: Rodrigues, Edmonton's Patrick Russell, Calgary's Mark Jankowski and Detroit's Justin Abdelkader and Brendan Perlini.
Rodrigues reportedly expressed a desire to be traded Dec. 31 after being a healthy scratch for the 17th time this season Dec. 31. He was out of the lineup the following three games until he drew back in against Vancouver.
Rodrigues was on the Sabres' second power-play unit Sunday and capitalized five minutes into the first period by corralling a Henri Jokiharju pass in the left circle and scoring on his own rebound for his first multigoal game since Dec. 10, 2017.
Girgensons pushed the lead to 3-0 by finishing a shorthanded breakaway with a shot around Howard's right leg pad with 7:17 left in the first period.
"It’s great to see him score a couple of goals," Krueger said of Rodrigues. "Every day is a new day, but he’s worked hard through some adversity here. I’m pleased for him, and we tried to get him the hat trick. The team is really supportive of players in difficult situations, and I thought the group around him helped him, too. It was a good team game and he was part of it."
The impressive start preceded an ugly second period in which the Sabres had only three shots on net and were lucky to escape with only one goal against, Madison Bowey's wrist shot past a moving screen with 8:04 remaining.
Neutral-zone turnovers and an inability to forecheck resulted in limited offensive-zone time for Buffalo. The Red Wings almost cut the deficit to one on multiple occasions, including a scramble in which Brandon Montour used his glove to shovel the puck out of the crease.
Linus Ullmark was also forced to make a breakaway save on veteran center Valtteri Filppula. Detroit had the momentum until Bogosian scored his first goal since March 7, 2019. Bogosian skated with the puck into the right circle, faked a shot and cut to the slot, where his backhander went through traffic and past Howard, who was screened by Rodrigues for a 4-1 lead at 2:35 into the third period.
"I feel like I’ve showed it the last 12 years," Bogosian said of his skill with the puck. "I feel good. It’s definitely nice to get rewarded tonight. Just try to build off that."
"It was an important release of the pressure we were feeling," Krueger said of the goal. "I think even holding the 3-1 lead and maintaining it would be fine, but it definitely seemed to take the wind out of their sails. ... The goal, more than anything, just took Detroit completely out of the game."
Bogosian reportedly requested a trade after being scratched Dec. 12, which would have been his 11th game since returning from hip surgery. He has been scratched in seven of 13 games since and has an opportunity for an expanded role with Marco Scandella traded to Montreal.
Rasmus Ristolainen pushed the lead to 5-1 with a power-play goal on a rebound with 16:20 remaining in regulation. The Sabres' penalty kill went 3-for-3 and they had their first multigoal game on the power play since Dec. 14.
The win drew Buffalo (20-19-7) to within five points of Philadelphia for the second wild-card playoff spot, and the performance by Rodrigues and Bogosian could create an interesting situation for General Manager Jason Botterill.
"This was obviously big for us," Rodrigues said of the Sabres' win. "Back to back and not the performance we wanted yesterday, so to get an early lead today was big for us."