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Hamilton: Keys to Sabres recent success

The Sabres have points in four of their last five games as they get ready to host the Rangers on Thursday night.
Credit: AP
Buffalo Sabres forward Dylan Cozens (24) celebrates his goal during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Rangers, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — When you start the season at home and go 0-2 in an NHL shortened season, you already have yourself in trouble.

The Sabres did just that and then hit the road for four games against Philadelphia and the Capitals.

With no preseason games, Eric Staal looked awful, Tage Thompson looked nervous and tentative, and Sam Reinhart was AWOL for 4.5 periods.

The Sabres lost the second game to Washington 6-4, but in the third period, you could start to see a different team. Buffalo walked into Philly and absolutely demolished the Flyers on national TV, 6-1. Reinhart started playing with Jack Eichel and Taylor Hall and scored twice, Curtis Lazar netted two goals from the bottom six and defensively, Buffalo hardly gave up anything in front of Carter Hutton.

After that horrible start, the Sabres have picked up points in four out of five games going 3-1-1. The biggest thing I’ve seen through seven games is Jake McCabe and Rasmus Ristolainen are playing the best hockey of their careers. Buffalo is close to the league lead at limiting high quality chances, and you can see Linus Ullmark’s numbers improving on a nightly basis.

On Tuesday against the New York Rangers, Buffalo took a 3-2 lead into the third period and reverted back to the way they used to play and allowed the Rangers to come at them. New York outshot Buffalo 15-2, but Ullmark made the big saves, especially when the Rangers had a 6-on-4 power play.

Credit: AP
Washington Capitals center Nic Dowd (26) shoots the puck that went over the net against Buffalo Sabres goaltender Linus Ullmark (35) during the second period Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, in Washington.

In the game Dylan Cozens and Jack Eichel scored power play goals. After the captain netted his first goal of the season, Buffalo had scored on five out of seven power play attempts.

To get better this season I said the Sabres would have to improve their special teams drastically. Going into action on Wednesday, Buffalo was eighth in the NHL with the extra man scoring at a 30.8 percent clip. Even after going 3 for 3 on the penalty kill Tuesday, the Sabres entered Wednesday 22nd at 75%. That still needs to improve if they have any shot at the playoffs.

It’s really amazing that the Sabres are 3-3-1 and tied for fifth in the East with New Jersey considering Eichel, Hall and Jeff Skinner have combined for two goals. Hall scored in his first game and hasn’t hit the back of the net since. Skinner gets chance after chance after chance and still can’t score goals. Most fans want to blame Ralph Krueger for this, but considering the scoring chances that he creates, it’s 100% on Skinner. He needs to be held accountable for his own play.

With three home games coming up against the Rangers and New Jersey Devils, Buffalo has pulled to within two points of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Boston. To make the playoffs, you only have to catch one of them. I do find it interesting that in the East, only Washington and the Bruins have a plus in the goal differential column.

Credit: AP
Buffalo Sabres during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, ay KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.

So how do the Sabres improve more than they already have? First, Eichel, Hall, Reinhart and Skinner can’t all be in a slump together.

Second, Dahlin has to settle down on defense. He’s doing a great job quarterbacking the power play with quick movement from the point, but he has the yips defensively. Krueger benched him for almost half the game in Washington and I have noticed an improvement since he’s been back.

Third, McCabe and Ristolainen must continue to make it difficult for opposing forwards. Before he got injured a few years ago, McCabe was Buffalo’s best defenseman. He seems to be that again.

Fourth, the goaltending must continue to make the big saves. Hutton did it in Philadelphia before getting hurt and Ullmark seems to be coming on. Ullmark is also the clear starter and Hutton said he’s come to grips with that.

I also want to mention one more player that played in his first game as a Sabre on Tuesday night. Matt Irwin was stellar. He’s played in big playoff games and has played on good teams in San Jose and Nashville. I told Adam Benigni when they signed him that Irwin is the perfect No. 6 defenseman and Krueger has made a huge mistake not using him. When Henri Jokiharju is ready to return from injury, Irwin should not be the guy coming out.