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Sabres finding their way again, and Jason Botterill has to give them some help

Mike Harrington

So Jason Botterill's week ahead is getting mighty interesting.

Just when his team is getting on a roll, does the Buffalo Sabres' general manager go all-out selling ahead of the Feb. 24 trade deadline merely to pick up some extra draft picks? A loss Sunday to the Toronto Maple Leafs would have made it an easy call. The Sabres would have been 11 points out of a wild card and 12 points out of third place in the Atlantic Division. Game over.

But now? A three-goal outburst in 91 seconds of the third period produced more classic Jack Eichel taunts of Leafs fans in his home barn and a 5-2 win. The margin is down to eight points for third place in the Atlantic. And Buffalo has a game in hand. And Toronto's next four games are against Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Carolina and Tampa Bay. Hmmm.

The Sabres are 5-2-1 in February and have won four out of five for the first time since October. They're healthy up front for the first time in ages. They seem to have finally settled on six defensemen. Carter Hutton is on a four-game winning streak after not winning a single game from the week before Halloween until a couple of weeks before Valentine's Day.

The schedule looks unkind for Buffalo, too, with six of the next seven on the road. But the Sabres are a 2-1 loss in Nashville away from having four straight wins out of town. After so long at home, getting together on a roadie for more bonding is probably a good thing.

But the deadline looms. With just a week to go, Sabres Nation is turning its lonely eyes to you, Botterill. Undoubtedly, so are Terry and Kim Pegula.

Unless the Sabres collapse in their final three games before the deadline, the GM probably has to play this both ways. He might want to sell some and he needs to buy, too.

Conor Sheary, Jimmy Vesey, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson and recently acquired Michael Frolik are unrestricted free agents. Evan Rodrigues, who asked out around the new year, is a restricted free agent. So is defenseman Brandon Montour, who might have to be dangled to get a quality forward.

On the one hand, the Sabres need more help. On the other hand, Botterill might be breaking up a good thing. Coach Ralph Krueger has been resolute in insisting his players haven't quit. The scoreboard is backing up his point. Eichel put the Sabres ahead on a third-period power play and it was a blitz after that as goals from Kyle Okposo and Vesey sent all those Leafs fans back up the QEW empty-handed.

Three goals in 91 seconds were the Sabres' fastest trio of scores since 1998. And an emphatic statement the season is still alive.

"You could see how we have depth. You could see we've got healthy bodies now," Krueger said. "And to be able to push after that goal with the fourth and fifth goals was something we haven't seen enough of this year. It was just great to see a four-line effort here, a real clear mindset."

The Sabres survived on a night that saw one of the biggest and loudest pro-Leafs crowds in Buffalo in recent memory. It made for a bizarre atmosphere at times with huge cheers for the two Toronto goals – and loud boos and groans when Eichel took down Zach Hyman and there was no penalty called on the Buffalo captain.

Eichel loves these games. When he converted Victor Olofsson's pass for what proved to be the game-winning goal, he turned to the glass to stare down some Leafs fans – and made the hand motion to tell them to sit down. It was a sick burn. Much like when Eichel did a full pound into the glass and spit on the ice in front of Leafs fans here after another goal three years ago.

Eichel was smirking hard and saying little afterward about this latest little byplay. Asked if he reveled in sending Toronto fans home, he would only go far as to say, "Yeah. ... Enjoy it."

Asked if he was really telling Leafs fans to sit down, the smile grew even if the word count didn't. "I don't know," he said. "You guys can make your own assumptions on it."

It's a shame these teams only play four times a year and a bigger shame they've met in the playoffs just once in the Sabres' 50-year history. It would be quite a show now with Eichel on hand to go head to head with Auston Matthews.

Okposo knows all about this kind of stuff from his days in the middle of the Islanders-Rangers tussles.

"It's definitely fun. Probably a few less fights in the stands here," Okposo cracked. "This rivalry is awesome and it's only going to continue to grow. They've got a young team as do we and we're going to continue to fight to make it a playoff rivalry. It's something our fans that came out to support us will definitely remember games like this."

Krueger said he'll remember how his team showed some maturity, pushing aside a controversial no-goal call on replay that took a Vesey goal away in the first period and battling to stay with the game after blowing a 2-0 lead.

Eichel agreed that there are a lot of great signs around this team right now. But there's no question it needs help. Botterill can't be waiting until the summer to do it. Go do something now.

"We're starting to get the confidence going again in the room and I think that's everything," Eichel said. "You see we're getting contributions throughout the lineup. We keep doing that, keep playing hard, limiting the other team's opportunities, who knows what can happen? We're just focused on our next day and trying to get two points in our next game."

The Wraparound: Buffalo Sabres 5, Toronto Maple Leafs 2

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