The Buffalo Sabres—yeah, the Sabres, worst team in the league last season—just keep on winning, and they did it again Tuesday night. After a scoreless opening half hour, the Sabres got out to a 2-0 lead against the Sharks at home with a couple of slick scores. But in the final 10 minutes of the third, Buffalo suddenly slipped and surrendered a pair of goals to Joe Pavelski, which forced overtime. Full-on collapse was averted, however, after an awkward botched clearance from Martin Jones allowed Jeff Skinner to pot his fifth goal in his past four games. The electric win continues what’s now a rollicking 10-game win streak for the Sabres—the best for this franchise since 2006—and it’s yet more proof that nobody can ignore Buffalo anymore.
If, when the game was 2-0, you thought this could maybe turn into a comfortable victory for the Sabres, you haven’t been watching them play this month. Despite the ridiculous hot streak they now currently enjoy, the Sabres have built up their momentum thanks to a remarkable run of nail-biters and comebacks. Of the ten wins, only three have come in regulation, and of those three that didn’t need overtime, only a 5-2 defeat of the Flyers was decided by more than one goal. There’s the 6-5 OT thriller against Montreal that started the whole streak off. There’s been multi-goal comebacks against both Pittsburgh and Vancouver. There’s been seven-frame shootout wins against both the Jets and the Red Wings. The victories have been messy, for sure, but each successive triumph restores a little more faith that maybe, just maybe these perpetual losers have suddenly turned a corner.
As you can glean, even though the Sabres’ point total of 36 through 25 games can hang with the cream of the crop like Toronto and Tampa Bay, their actual abilities likely slot them closer to the more minor playoff teams like Boston and Columbus. Still, the improvement the Sabres have shown so far this season has been incredible, as a perennial last-place team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2011 has found life and excitement, finally, in a long-suffering hockey stronghold. The turning point—for me at least—came a couple weeks ago, when the Sabres played the Lightning on national TV. Usually, the Sabres’ poor play and loyal fanbase of viewers have combined to make them a constant jinx for any uninterested hockey fan who watches NBC broadcasts. But on that night, the team stood strong at home and held on for a thrilling 2-1 win against a blatantly more talented opponent, notching their third in a row and sending a clear message: This year, it’s different.
For the new and improved Sabres, it starts with the netminders. Robin Lehner was a huge weak point in goal last season, and he moved on to the Islanders in free agency. The Sabres have replaced him with Carter Hutton, a veteran goalie fresh off putting up some career-best numbers in St. Louis. Hutton and Linus Ullmark, the heir apparent backup, have combined for a .922 save percentage and a GAA of 2.52. Shutouts are a rarity, and the goaltenders would likely prefer their defense keep a few more shots away from them—the Sabres are below average with 32.3 shots per game allowed—but these two have provided a solid foundation from which the skaters can work.
And damn, these skaters are fun. Rasmus “Wonderteen” Dahlin and his fellow defenseman Rasmus “The Other Rasmus” Ristolainen have shined early, with each earning 11 assists so far. And while the first-overall pick Dahlin has quickly lived up to the hype as a smart offensive talent and a good Corsi kid in his rookie campaign, the more senior Ristolainen has impressed as well. The hard-hitting workhorse logs 25 minutes of ice time a night and plays a key role on a strong penalty kill unit while also flashing the occasional open-ice abilities of a forward, like he did on this pretty first goal Tuesday night.
At the actual forward spots, second-overall 2015 draft pick Jack Eichel remains the long-term centerpiece, but a scoring slump early this season has shifted the spotlight to a couple of Sabres wingers. Though Eichel only has five goals at the moment (don’t worry, his shot totals still lead the team), he’s kept busy by passing the puck to Jeff Skinner, a new acquisition who quietly produced on an irrelevant Hurricanes team for a while but has totally broken out during the win streak. Now, Skinner’s sitting tied at the top of the NHL leaderboard with 19 goals, and if he keeps it up, he’ll be a marquee free agent in the coming summer. Further down the lines, the Sabres are enjoying a pleasantly vintage start from 35-year-old Jason Pominville—a veteran of the team’s last deep playoff run in 2007 who’s opened the year with nine goals and nine assists—while also welcoming Conor Sheary, a new pick-up from the Penguins who didn’t play on Tuesday but overall provides a reliably consistent experienced-winner presence with a point every two games or so.
You hate to reward purposeful losing—and that was the Sabres’ obvious plan since before the McDavid/Eichel draft—but aside from the plain fact that it’s fun to watch a ton of tight overtime games, it’s also decently cool to see Buffalo re-energized. The excitement on the ice and in the seats after the Skinner winner was so intense, it could have been a playoff win. And considering how much awful hockey these fans have been through, they deserve to celebrate like it is one.
After tanking their way into some can’t-miss young guys—they could get another in 2019 or 2020* thanks to the struggling Blues’ draft pick from the Ryan O’Reilly trade—and actually making some shrewd moves to bring in support, the Sabres have finally become the kind of team that their fans can get extremely hyped for, and neutrals can get engrossed in watching. Even this stressful win streak has been far from painless, but given the suffering that the Sabres have inflicted upon themselves for the past several years, these small successes already feels like paradise.