DALLAS – While watching video in preparation for a final game against the Stars, Ralph Krueger quickly noticed the Buffalo Sabres were in for one of their most difficult tests of the season.
The Stars used relentless pressure on the puck to allow the fewest goals in the National Hockey League and won six of their previous eight games entering Thursday. They had the second-most points in the Western Conference, despite turning to interim coach Rick Bowness following Jim Montgomery's dismissal last month.
Dallas was also far more experienced than the Sabres, who were without Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson. Yet Buffalo appeared to be the more composed team in a 4-1 win over the Stars in American Airlines Center on Thursday night.
The Sabres, now 22-19-7 and winners in five of their last seven, scored a pair of empty-net goals to improve to 18-1 when leading after two periods. This wasn't their most well-executed game of the season. However, managing a lead against one of the top teams in the NHL showed they have potentially turned the corner with one game remaining before the All-Star break.
"It was a big night for us as far as really feeling the game we need to play against the top teams in the NHL," Krueger said. "We have so much respect for Dallas and what they’ve been doing. Watching them has been a real treat for us coaches in how strong they’ve been playing and what a good team they are and how we were able to beat them at their own game tonight for the points, which is something that our group – in a much bigger learning curve at the moment – will take a lot from."
Managing third-period leads has been a problem for the Sabres at times this season. They allowed five unanswered goals in a 6-4 loss to Tampa Bay on Dec. 31, capping a stretch in which Buffalo lost seven of eight games. The Sabres have since beaten Edmonton, Florida, Detroit, Vegas and Dallas. Buffalo entered Thursday with a negative-six goal differential in the third period this season.
Krueger's players know how they need to play to win. Sticking to that plan has been a problem, though. The Sabres had that issue again in the second period Thursday night. They were outshot, 16-5, in the second period and allowed the tying goal when Jamie Benn capitalized on a puck that caromed off the end boards at 4:28.
The Sabres buckled under the Stars' puck pressure, resulting in turnovers and an inability to cycle in the offensive zone. Buffalo had only two second-period shots on net until a successful forecheck resulted in the go-ahead goal.
After the Sabres regained possession in the left corner, Kyle Okposo passed back to the blue line, where defenseman Henri Jokiharju bided time until Rasmus Dahlin was open with space. As Curtis Lazar screened Dallas goalie Ben Bishop, Dahlin flicked a wrist shot from the right circle through traffic and into the net for a 2-1 lead with 3:50 remaining in the second period.
"They were coming out strong in the second period there and kept going the whole period," Dahlin said. "We did a good job too there and kept them away from our goalie. They had a couple chances, but we figured that out."
Sabres forwards combined for only seven shots on goal through two periods, and their power play had zero shots on goal in two opportunities. Yet Dahlin recalled there was a sense of confidence in the dressing room. They weren't pleased with how they played in the previous 20 minutes, but there was an awareness of what was needed to close out a win.
Rather than attempting stretch passes through the neutral zone, Buffalo's forwards began to carry the puck toward the opposing blue line and dumped it into the offense zone. The Sabres then retrieved loose pucks and sustained pressure by forechecking.
Bishop stopped high-danger scoring chances by Michael Frolik and Lazar within the first seven minutes of the third period, a stretch in which the Sabres outshot the Stars, 5-1. Lazar then hit the post to continue to apply pressure on Dallas, which committed a number of turnovers in the neutral zone.
"It was pretty outstanding from us in the third period," Frolik said. "We were pretty good in the neutral zone and created some turnovers there. I think we had a couple of good shifts offensively. We hung on to the puck and had some good, heavy shifts there. ... Great effort tonight. Obviously the second period really wasn’t our period, but when it came to the third we were solid there. Big two points for sure."
The Sabres' penalty kill, which entered Thursday ranked 28th in the NHL, helped close out the win. The Stars pulled Bishop for an extra attacker with Lawrence Pilut in the penalty box, creating a 6-on-4 for Dallas.
The Stars barely possessed the puck before Frolik scored an empty-net, shorthanded goal, his first as a Sabre, for a 3-1 lead. Zemgus Girgensons added another empty-netter with 9.9 seconds remaining. The Sabres allowed only five shots on goal in the third period, and Linus Ullmark finished with 28 saves.
"We’ve come to the point now where we play very strong in the third period," Dahlin said. "When there are like 10 minutes left, we tell ourselves we don’t let them score. That’s the mindset we have."
Unlike previous seasons, the Sabres have an identity. They illustrated that fact in the first period. An offensive-zone forecheck led to Jack Eichel making a centering pass to Sam Reinhart, whose no-look backhanded pass set up Jimmy Vesey for a 1-0 lead at 7:01 into the game.
The third period was a sign of significant growth, and the Sabres withstood the Stars' push to keep pace in the Eastern Conference.
"I was just really proud how the guys came out in the third and were comfortable with the 2-1 lead once we had it and just managed it," Krueger said. "In that one stretch I think we went seven or eight minutes without a whistle in just a really, really mature way. Playing against one of the most experienced teams and mature teams in the National Hockey League. To do that to them, I thought, was just a really good evening of learning for us and growing and just pleased with the team effort that happened here throughout the whole game."