Most projections had the Buffalo Sabres finish at the bottom of the newly formed East Division, but in spite of struggling out of the gate, the Sabres have earned points in the last five games and are been showing they are not as outmatched as many experts thought.
The Sabres were looking for the additions of veterans Taylor Hall and Eric Staal and a revamping of their forward depth to group team captain Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Dahlin to improve and challenge for a playoff spot.
“It’s the sign of good teams when you’re not at your best (and) you’re still picking up points in the column,” Staal said after the Sabres 4-3 shootout win over New Jersey on Saturday afternoon. “I think we’re still taking steps, there are parts of our game that are solid and there’s parts that we can continue to work on, but I think that goes for a lot of teams. Obviously, the two points are huge and that’s what matters.”
Hall is tied for the club scoring lead with Eichel but has not scored since opening night. Staal has three goals and has provided valuable secondary scoring and leadership, while veteran Tobias Rieder and rookie Dylan Cozens have kicked in some offense to take some of the pressure off of the top line to produce every night.
Buffalo head coach Ralph Krueger’s usage of Jeff Skinner on the fourth line for most of the season continues to be puzzling, as the former 40-goal scorer has one assist in nine games playing with Riley Sheahan and Curtis Lazar, but with Reinhart out of the lineup with an upper-body injury, the speedy winger was reunited with Eichel in the third period against the Devils.
A contributing factor to the Sabres recent positive turn has been the performance of goalie Linus Ullmark. After missing time earlier in the month due to the death of his father, the 27-year-old has been pressed into duty with veteran Carter Hutton injured and has gone 3-0-2, with a 2.56 GAA and .914 save percentage.
“It was a tough bounce for (the Devils) game-tying goal and (Ullmark) really recovered after that. I think it’s something that gives you confidence for those situations in the future.” Krueger said. “We know we can take some risks and give up odd-man rushes if we’re ever behind, with Linus in that kind of zone he’s in and the high level of confidence.”
Krueger split the goaltending duties pretty evenly last season, but the head coach indicated that he is prepared to give Ullmark more work if he continues to play at his current level.