Don Granato wasn’t the only person on the Buffalo Sabres’ bench peering up at the scoreboard as the clocked drained in KeyBank Center.
When the horn finally sounded and the Sabres’ players converged on goalie Linus Ullmark for a matter-of-fact celebration, Granato turned to shake hands with his assistant coaches and filed back to the dressing room.
Granato, a 53-year-old hockey lifer, had achieved his first NHL win as a head coach, the latest milestone in a career that’s spanned 25 years and various leagues across North America. Yet, for as long as Granato has waited for the feat, one 60-minute game does not illustrate all that he’s accomplished in two weeks as the Sabres’ interim coach.
Using a delicate blend of structure and freedom, Granato helped a group of directionless players forge an identity and guided the Sabres through a winless streak that spanned 34 days and 18 games. After a crushing defeat to begin the week, his players executed his system in brilliant fashion Wednesday, scoring four unanswered goals to cap a 6-1 win.
The franchise-record winless streak that led to former coach Ralph Krueger’s firing is finally over.
“There’s no question that is important to put the streak behind so everybody can move on, but we absolutely had to block it out,” said Granato. “I had to block it out. On the coaching side, of course I want to win, but again, we had to control what we could control and focus on making this group better and getting better as a team. I feel we are. We’re in a much better place and getting better. We have to keep that focus.”
The Sabres, still last in the NHL with a 7-23-5 record, did not relent when their lead was cut to 2-1 only 3:50 into the second period by an Ivan Provorov shot. There were no signs of discouragement on the Buffalo bench or on the ice when the Sabres went almost half the second period without a shot on goal.
Unwavering in their desire to execute Granato’s system, the Sabres continued to pressure the Flyers into mistakes. Forwards created traffic in front of the net. Defensemen took wise, calculated risks to leave the opposing blue line for a chance to retrieve the puck.
Steven Fogarty, a 27-year-old forward and captain of the Rochester Americans, scored his first career NHL goal by parking himself in front of the net and directing a pass from Rasmus Ristolainen into the Flyers’ net. Casey Mittelstadt, elevated into a first-line center role with Jack Eichel and Dylan Cozens out, pushed the lead to 4-1 with a shot that chased Philadelphia goalie Brian Elliott from the game.
Granato did not want to give a speech in the dressing room when the Sabres were leading by three goals at the second intermission, the same situation they were in two nights earlier. Instead, he turned the room over to his players, knowing they were aware what needed to be done in the final 20 minutes.
“Obviously relieved,” Sabres defenseman Brandon Montour said with a laugh. “We've spoken enough times. Obviously, we're frustrated with the results we're having, losing streak and whatnot. But guys have been positive.”
Upon taking over as interim coach, Granato tweaked the 5-on-5 system used by Krueger and implemented subtle changes to allow the Sabres to use their speed to create chances. Early returns were ugly, as Buffalo allowed 14 goals across Granato’s first three games.
Granato did not alter his plan. He restructured the Sabres’ practices, demanding more of players and emphasizing pace. Individual and team meetings were longer. Any examples shown on video were then taught using on-ice drills. Granato has even used morning skates as abbreviated practices, pulling out the whiteboard to provide detailed instructions rather than having his players go through the same drills every game.
“It’s exciting,” said Sam Reinhart, who scored the game’s opening goal. “I like the style we’ve been able to play, we’ve been able to skate more and play a faster game. Tonight, I think on the defensive end, we were able to build speed and make some plays coming out of our end a little bit more.”
This wasn’t about only one win. Granato is a realist. The Sabres are 22 points behind the fourth and final playoff spot in the East Division. This is about improving a team that has performed far below expectations. And as much as all involved were relieved to end a winless streak that Montour previously referred to as “embarrassing,” Granato is still in the early stages of his plan to implement a system that enhances his team’s strengths and masks any weaknesses.
“As a coach, you hope it turns for them. You know it’s going to turn. You hope it turns sooner than later and tonight was a good one.”
Here are other observations from the game Wednesday:
1. Reinhart may stick at center longer than expected. Granato’s decision to use Reinhart at center was made partly out of necessity. Entering the game, Eichel and Cozens remained out with upper-body injuries, and using Reinhart at center gave the Sabres better options in the top six.
Reinhart, though, may remain at center beyond Wednesday. Curtis Lazar did not return to the game after suffering an undisclosed injury in the second period.
“It was fun, I enjoyed it,” said Reinhart. “It was good to come underneath the puck a little bit more and get a couple different looks. I thought the defensive part was went well. It’s an easy system to read off of, so I enjoyed it.”
2. The system change has worked wonders for Kyle Okposo. The 32-year-old was a valuable defensive forward in Year One under former Krueger, providing a consistent effort on the forecheck and forming a shutdown line with Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson.
Okposo, though, struggled to gain traction this season, partly because of injury. He’s performing well under Granato, as illustrated again Wednesday when his effort on the forecheck and smart pass led to Reinhart’s opening goal. It extended Okposo’s point streak to five games and he has seven points in his last nine games.
3. Montour won’t be around much longer. The 26-year-old scored two short-handed goals in 37 seconds during the third period, the fastest by a defenseman in NHL history and 12th fastest by any player. The pending unrestricted free agent was ranked by TSN as the top right-handed defenseman on the move ahead of the April 12 deadline.