There’s really two different ways that you can look at the Buffalo Sabres’ 5-4 shootout win over the Minnesota Wild tonight at KeyBank Center, and there’s truth to both sides of the argument.
On one hand, it’s discouraging because the team allowed the Wild to tie the game with 1:30 left in the third. In the end a victory is a victory, but it’s still not good when you consider it was the team’s third blown lead of the night. Before Zach Parise scored to knot the game at four with Minnesota’s net empty, Buffalo had also allowed the Wild to come back from 1-0 and 3-1 deficits. It’s definitely not an encouraging sign from a team that is trudging for a playoff spot. Jared Spurgeon (2) and Charlie Coyle also scored for Bruce Boudreau’s squad.
On the other hand, the win can also be looked at very positively. Despite the Wild pulling off a hat trick of rallies, the Sabres stayed the course every time and never allowed Minnesota to take the lead. This isn’t easy either. Everyone knows that the momentum almost always swings to the side of a team that pulls off a big comeback, and I know I wasn’t the only one that was expecting Minnesota to win after Parise’s game saver.
Head coach Phil Housley broke up the top line of Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart to shake things up. Conor Sheary and Kyle Okposo were promoted to the top line with Eichel. Skinner reunited with Jason Pominville alongside Casey Mittelstadt, and Reinhart joined Evan Rodrigues and newly recalled CJ Smith. The changes paid immediate dividends. Rodrigues, Smith, Ramus Dahlin and Reinhart all scored for Buffalo in the see-saw battle while Eichel added two assists and eight total players got on the score sheet. Rodrigues’ goal was his fifth in the last seven games, he’s been Buffalo’s best player in that stretch.
The highlight of the game in my opinion was seeing Smith score. It’s a relief that GM Jason Botterill finally came to his senses and stopped wasting his time with Remi Elie, who had just one point in 16 games before being waived and assigned to the Amerks. The 24-year-old Smith was scoring at point-per-game pace with Rochester (41 in 41) to earn his recall, and he delivered instantly. Let’s all hope he’s here for good this time.
Linus Ullmark was strong for Buffalo despite his team going to sleep on him once again and stopped 41 of Minnesota’s 45 shots. Devan Dubnyk, usually one of the best netminders in the game, wasn’t as sharp as normal but kept the Wild in it enough to earn a point. He stopped 35 of 39, but let Reinhart’s wrist shot in the shootout squeak through his arm, and it proved to be the difference. Ullmark stopped Parise to seal the win but was injured after the two collided awkwardly. Rather than just skate away, Parise stopped to check if Ullmark was okay and the goaltender acknowledged his sportsmanship before making a bee line for the dressing room. Props to Parise for that, it was a cool showing and something that we don’t see much of anymore.
With the win the Sabres move to 58 points, one back of Columbus, though this won’t be the same by the end of the night at the Blue Jackets currently lead the Avalanche by two in the third period.
Buffalo needed a win tonight, but the next two available points are even more critical. Carolina comes to down on Thursday for what could be argued is the biggest game of the season to this point. The Hurricanes also have 58 points and are too vying for the last Eastern Conference Wild Card spot. The winner of the game will move ahead in the race. The Sabres haven’t won consecutive games since mid-December, and if they can’t on Thursday, many fans may officially hit the panic button.