Sabres hold off Columbus to start second half

The Buffalo Sabres started the second half of the season exactly as they needed to: on a winning note. Since the team’s bye week this season coincided with the All-Star break, Tuesday night was Buffalo’s first action in almost two weeks, but the team showed no signs of rust and downed the Columbus Blue Jackets, 5-4 in Nationwide Arena.

Evan Rodrigues opened the scoring 2:14 into the first to give Buffalo an early lead after a beautifully executed play with Conor Sheary and Casey Mittelstadt. I’m often critical of Rodrigues but he’s been Buffalo’s best forward by a country mile over the last few contests and the goal was his fourth in the last four games (he later added an assist as well).

However, the team’s recent trend of struggling to maintain leads quickly returned as Pierre-Luc Dubois scored to tie it just 1:03 later. However, in what would prove to be a trend in this game, Buffalo found an answer of its own when Dubois left Sam Reinhart alone in front of the Columbus net and he cashed it past Blue Jackets G Sergei Bobrovsky to make it 2-1.

The momentum stayed on Buffalo’s side when not soon after Tage Thompson fired a laser over Bobrovsky’s glove from the right hash marks that made the two-time Vezina winner look stupid and make it 3-1. Thompson hasn’t scored many goals in his career yet, but that one was undoubtedly his prettiest so far.

Things got dicier in the second for Buffalo. Though no.31 for Jeff Skinner gave the team its two goal lead back just 21 seconds after Nick Foligno made it 3-2, the Jackets fought back to tie the game at four on tallies from Brandon Dubinksy and Cam Atkinson.

The Sabres have let yet many promising games slip away this season and this one seemed to be heading for that. But the second line stepped into the act once again, and Sheary gave his team the lead back 2:12 into the third and it proved to be the difference maker.

What makes the win extra special for Buffalo is that, in addition to the team not folding after blowing a two-goal lead, it got three goals from players not named Jack, Jeff or Sam. Besides Rodrigues’ continued surge, Thompson and Sheary’s goals are welcome contributions for a team that will need all the supplemental scoring it can get if the postseason is to return to KeyBank Center after a seven season absence. Despite their defensive struggles, four Buffalo blue-liners tallied assists as well, Ramsus Dahlin (2), Zach Bogosian, Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe.

Carter Hutton had a solid game and stopped 33 of 37 Columbus attempts. He was tagged for four goals, but considering he got very little help from his defense, that’s not bad. Pairing Marco Scandella and Matt Hunwick together wasn’t the best decision Phil Housley has made in his coaching career, and what’s scarier still is that Hunwick was the better of the two. My friend told me that he would accept a tank of gas and an ice cream cone in exchange for Scandella, and the more I think of that, the less unreasonable it sounds (Happy Birthday Jonesy).

The win was an appropriate start to the second half for Buffalo. After struggling more often than not over the last two months, the Sabres will need every win they can possibly get as the playoff hunt heats up. The team remains two points back of Pittsburgh for the second Eastern Conference Wild Card spot. Fittingly enough, the Sabres and Penguins both have games tomorrow and Buffalo can force a tie if they can beat the Stars and Olympic diver Sidney Crosby and co. lose to Tampa Bay.

Tomorrow night’s matchup in Dallas is an absolute must-win for the Sabres. Tune in at 8:30 PM ET for the action from American Airlines Center.

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