Don Granato mum on job status after Sabres finish season with win


Staff member

Applause erupted in the Buffalo Sabres’ dressing room late Monday night as Don Granato addressed his players.

Eric Comrie, their beloved backup goalie, made 31 saves against one of the most dangerous teams in the NHL despite not starting a game for five weeks. Dylan Cozens fought through the frustration and disappointment of a challenging season to score two goals in the final game of the season. Zach Benson, their 18-year-old winger, added an insurance marker in the third period in Amalie Arena.

Eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs one week earlier, the Sabres beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2 to ensure that the flight back to Buffalo wouldn’t be as painstaking as so many others since the season began in October.

No one was overjoyed, though. The postgame celebration was subdued. Everyone in the Sabres’ dressing room and coaches’ office couldn’t focus on anything other than the reality that their 38-36-6 record wasn’t enough to snap the franchise’s playoff drought that dates to 2011.

“I’m not going to be thinking about much, other than not being in the playoffs,” lamented Cozens. “That’s the biggest thing that’s going to be on my mind, and it’s going to be on my mind this summer every time I’m on the ice, every time I’m in the gym. It’s gonna be a big summer for a lot of us and we have a lot to prove.”
The Sabres had a points percentage above .500 for only the second time since 2011-12, and their 84 standings points are more than any season between 2012-22. The standard rose last season with a 91-point finish, though.

This was supposed to be the spring when fans would pack KeyBank Center and Alumni Plaza to celebrate the return of playoff hockey to Buffalo. Instead, they’re left wondering when the wait will finally end. Their beloved Sabres’ playoff drought turned 13 last week with a loss in their 79th game.

Beating the Lightning (44-29-8) for a third time this season was a reminder that the Sabres had the ability to finally clear the playoff hurdle. They outshot the Lightning 26-17 over the second and third periods; Benson scored only 15 seconds after Erik Cernak cut Buffalo’s lead to 3-2 with 10:21 left in regulation; and the Sabres managed 35 shots on goal despite losing Tage Thompson to a lower-body injury only 11:22 into the game.

“I want them to have it in the back of their minds how this feels,” said Alex Tuch. “How crappy it feels to miss the playoffs, just like it did last year. I want them to focus on the summer. Getting better, being the pros that they are every day this summer.”

It was the latest example of the Sabres’ improved team defense. Their 159 goals against at 5-on-5 is the 11th-best mark in the NHL and a drastic improvement from the 204 they allowed last season. Buffalo also overcame another empty showing by its power play with three even-strength goals, and, despite the drop in production by top players, it ranked 10th in 5-on-5 goals scored. Despite icing the youngest roster in the NHL and missing Jack Quinn for most of the season, the Sabres also had a plus-15 goal differential at 5-on-5, compared to the Lightning’s mark of negative-21. Tampa Bay’s top-ranked power play is why the franchise has secured a spot in the playoffs.

There were obvious signs of improvement over the past few months. They were fifth in the NHL in goals allowed per game while playing at a 93-point pace after Jan. 1. The problem, though, is Buffalo was at a 73-point pace between Oct. 12 and Dec. 31.

“It’s also on us, you know?” said Rasmus Dahlin. “We can’t have a bad start. We’ve got to make sure we’re prepared for the start of next season. Power play has to get better. I really liked our defensive game and we for sure got better through the end of the year, but it was too late.”

The Sabres took too long to fix their bad starts to games. They allowed 97 goals in the first period and finished with a negative-30 goal differential in the opening frame of games this season. Their 7-21-1 record when allowing two or more goals in the first period was a troubling trend, particularly in the first half of the season.

Buffalo didn’t win three games in a row until February and never won four in a row. It had only two loser points after Dec. 23 and went 11-11-6 in one-goal games. The Sabres’ inconsistent ways raised questions about the future of the roster and their head coach, Granato, whose two-year contract extension doesn’t begin until next season.

The team informed reporters that Granato and General Manager Kevyn Adams are expected to hold their end-of-season press conferences Friday morning, perhaps a sign that the Sabres have elected to retain the coach who led them to their best single-season finish in over a decade. When asked whether he’s been given any assurance from Adams or owner Terry Pegula that he’d return as coach, Granato preferred not to comment on his job security.

“Let’s just stick with the game tonight,” Granato said. “A lot of great efforts out there. Obviously, I can reflect on … not where we wanted to be. So, I’ll leave it at that right now.”

Here are other observations from the game:

1. Stepping up​

One impressive performance won’t make Cozens happier about his season.

He needed a few confidence-building games to take into the summer, though. The 2019 first-round pick helped the Sabres shut down Alex Ovechkin last week, then committed a turnover that the Florida Panthers used to score the overtime goal Saturday night. On Monday, Cozens showed that he’s still dangerous with the puck. He converted on two scoring chances to finish with 18 goals and 47 points in 79 games. The 23-year-old had eight shots on goal in 20:15 of ice time and added an assist
“He competed hard tonight,” Granato said of Cozens. “He was strong on pucks and obviously he was rewarded for it. He had two or three points and could have had more. He was a real pain in the neck for them the entire night when you lose a centerman, you lose Thompson real early in that game, lots of guys had to step up and Dylan was big in that regard.”

2. Early exit​

Thompson’s season ended in the first period before he could even attempt more than one shot on goal.

He finished with 29 goals and 56 points in 71 games, a significant drop in production from the 47 goals and 94 points he had last season. The broken bone in his hand bothered Thompson for months. He didn’t look like himself until February and continued to play well until the final days of the season. The 26-year-old had 21 points in his last 18 games and needed one goal to become the first Sabres player with three consecutive seasons of at least 30 since Thomas Vanek accomplished the feat.
The injury may be severe enough to convince Thompson to pass on Team USA’s invitation to play in the IIHF World Championship.

3. More progress​

The Sabres must be excited to see what Benson can do next season after a summer of strength training.

The rookie winger had another impressive moment Monday night when he stripped defenseman Emil Lilleberg of the puck in front of Tampa Bay’s net to create a scoring chance. Then, Benson shoved Matt Dumba to start a scrum. Imagine how effective Benson will be once he gains weight and lower-body strength. Despite the challenging circumstances, Benson became the third 18-year-old in franchise history to produce double-digit goals in a season, joining Phil Housley and Pierre Turgeon.

Benson had seven points in his last five games to finish the season with 11 goals and 30 points in 71 games.

4. Farewell​

Comrie wasn’t sure how he’d perform in his first start since March 7.

The 28-year-old felt off-kilter during the morning skate. He hadn’t gotten many practice repetitions over the past week because of the Sabres’ schedule. However, Comrie was one of the Sabres’ best players in the first period and made 16 saves to help them lead at the first intermission for only the 22nd time this season.

Comrie stopped Brayden Point from the slot, Victor Hedman’s rebound attempt and two shots during a Lightning power play. It was an important opportunity for Comrie to end a season in which he appeared in only 10 NHL games, spent time in Rochester with the Amerks and again got stuck in a three-goalie depth chart.
“It’s been tough, for sure,” said Comrie.

Granato started Comrie to reward the backup for his professionalism through the tumult, a move that also protected Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen from injury in a game that didn’t hold playoff implications.