ST. PAUL, Minn. – Don Granato didn’t need to investigate the reason behind the Buffalo Sabres’ uncharacteristic performance in a Monday matinee against the Florida Panthers earlier this month.
Granato saw all the signs of an exhausted team. The Sabres weren’t snapping tape-to-tape passes to create time and space on the ice in KeyBank Center. Turnovers led to scoring chances the other way. Granato’s lineup is filled with immense skill and elite speed, yet they played slow while falling behind 3-0.
Practice was at the root of the problem. Coaches across the NHL are always balancing on-ice work between games and rest during the 82-game regular season. Granato had the Sabres skate the previous day and he didn't like the result.
A 45-minute on-ice session might not sound like much, but the Sabres never practice leisurely. It’s fast-paced from start to finish, and the youngest team in the NHL has numerous players who relish the opportunity to sharpen their skills before and after practice.
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An adjustment was needed, though. Three weeks remained until the All-Star break and the Sabres were in the middle of a grueling stretch in the schedule. Their game Saturday, which begins at 9 p.m. Eastern in Minnesota against the Wild, will be their 15th in 28 days since Jan. 1.
Not including the brief morning skates on gamedays, the Sabres have practiced only twice since Jan. 9. Granato's decision to prioritize rest has his team playing its best hockey at a time when many around the league are physically and mentally exhausted.
The Sabres (26-19-3) won their fifth straight game – their second win streak of at least five this season – and continued their impressive play away from Buffalo.
The Sabres have won five games in a row – including a 3-0 start to this four-game road trip with wins over the top two teams in the Western Conference – despite holding zero practices during that span.
“I didn't think our guys were fresh,” Granato said, referring to losses earlier this month. “So, it was right there, quick change and say we have to adjust to this because we need to be fresh. We're a much better team, we're a different team when we're fresh. Some of the games were adding up that, we just looked at and I've said postgame, we didn't look like ourselves. We were exhausted and drained, and I could tell that emotional energy, we didn't have it. For us, it was pretty clear and evident after a couple of reps that we needed to make sure we back off in some areas to allow our guys to be fresh and cutting practices was one factor."
Such few on-ice workouts between games would have been unheard of years ago, but the league has evolved. Teams are applying sports science to measure each player’s work rate and recovery. Players nowadays don’t need to be on the ice between games to maintain peak physical condition. The Sabres have played 48 games with two more before the All-Star break and bye week.
The Sabres will have only four games in 20 days following the break. There will be ample time to practice when the group is rested. At this point in the season, most players in the NHL are pushing through pain or soreness.
Granato and his staff have substituted practice time with group and one-on-one video sessions. He and his staff choose specific sequences in games to help players better understand what they did well in a game or where there was opportunity to make a greater impact.
Sabres forward Casey Mittelstadt joked that oftentimes he and his teammates are routinely surprised by the subtleties that Granato can find in a game. Granato takes note of those moments or plays and requests the clips from his video coordinator, Justin White, who cuts the video to be presented to an individual player or group.
“Honestly, some of the boys are laughing about it sometimes, and I don't even think he'd be mad if he heard me say that,” Mittelstadt said of Granato’s ability to analyze which plays need to be presented. “He does such a great job. He's always finding new ways and new things. I think that's what makes him a good coach, he's willing to evolve and he's willing to change. He sees things in different ways. I think it's huge for us. Obviously, we're a young group. Everyone's learning on the fly.”
The Sabres have been one of the most productive teams in the NHL in 5-on-5 situations since the latest winning streak began on Ryan Miller Night. During that five-game span, they’ve ranked second in goals scored per 60 minutes, fourth in shot-attempt differential and seventh in shot-quality share, according to Evolving-Hockey. Entering Friday, Buffalo’s 20 goals were the most by any team since Jan. 19, and Tage Thompson’s nine points led the league.
Limiting practice time is also a sign of the trust Granato has in his group. Despite their relative inexperience in the NHL, they’ve proven to him that they know how to prepare. Self-accountability within the group has fostered development.
Rasmus Dahlin, for example, didn’t like his performance in Chicago when the Sabres blew a two-goal lead and lost in overtime to the Blackhawks in the second game of a back-to-back on Jan. 17. The team wasn’t going to skate the following day, so Dahlin approached Granato during the flight back to Buffalo and asked to meet to go through video clips.
Using the knowledge gained from the meeting, Dahlin responded with one of his best all-around performances of the season. He had two assists, including an incredible stretch pass to Dylan Cozens on the game winner, and eight shot attempts in 25:12 of ice time against the Islanders.
Owen Power, the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft, also has continued to grow his game through video study. The 20-year-old has a goal in each of his past three games. And, according to Power, many of the adjustments he’s made can’t be put to the test in a practice environment.
“I think for me, just to be able to see different things, different trends in my game and other people's game and just trying to see that and kind of change on the fly,” he said. “So, a lot of times, a lot of stuff you can't really even work on in practice. It's only really in game, so I think video is huge to just see those things and to see different trends or habits that you're doing that you may want to change or keep doing.”
The Sabres couldn’t use this approach last season when Granato was still working with the group to develop an on-ice identity at 5-on-5. There was too much work to be done between games. But they've since built a strong enough base in those situations that energy can be used elsewhere. Buffalo’s 112 goals at 5-on-5 were more than all but three teams entering play Friday.
However, less practice time has likely played a role in the Sabres’ struggles on the power play, where they’re 4-for-31 since Jan. 9. Fewer puck touches between games have led to some uncharacteristic mistakes. Morning skates are useful to run through special-teams drills. And when time is limited, the chatter continues in the dressing room.
Following a recent pregame skate, Jeff Skinner walked around the dressing room to talk to Dahlin and Thompson about the execution of a certain play they ran through on the ice. It's a small price to pay, though.
The Sabres (26-19-3) entered Friday leading the NHL with 3.79 goals per game, and they were one point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second wild-card spot.
“Obviously, I’d rather play a game than practice, but you do notice not having those touches in practice,” said defenseman Matthias Samuelsson. “I think you just feel more confident when you, once or twice a week, touch the puck for the whole hour. A lot of off days, a lot of days where you don’t do much and just try to stay fresh every game so you can play at the top.
“I also think we’ve learned how to maybe play a simpler game, a more direct game. With so many games, everyone’s hurt and banged up or whatever. Maybe mentally you’re not as much there after a long week, so I think if you’re just predictable and play simple and let your teams read off you, it helps.”
Dahlin’s remarkable season didn’t earn him an All-Star nod when Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews dropped out of the event Friday because of an injury. Matthews was replaced on the Atlantic Division's 3-on-3 team by Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers, who are hosting the weekend of events from Feb. 2-4.
Dahlin, 22, is on pace for 94 points and, since 2000, only one defenseman reached the 90-point mark in a single season: Roman Josi, who finished with 96 for the Nashville Predators last season.
Sabres prospect Lukas Rousek of the Rochester Americans was selected Friday to represent his club and the North Division in the American Hockey League’s all-star game, which will be held Feb. 5-6 in Laval, Quebec.
Rousek, a sixth-round draft pick in 2019, has 10 goals and 27 points in 37 games for the Amerks this season. He's replacing his teammate, Brandon Biro, who is unavailable for the all-star game.