'Incited' by late penalties, Sabres fight back to win third in a row


Staff member

Rasmus Dahlin couldn’t believe that he was headed toward the penalty box again Sunday night.

Dahlin pled his case to no avail. The Buffalo Sabres defenseman carried the puck through the right circle and attempted to cut across the slot when he was pushed in the back by Carolina Hurricanes winger Michael Bunting.

Dahlin crashed into Hurricanes goalie Spencer Martin. Standing behind the Sabres’ bench, head coach Don Granato saw the anger on his players’ faces. Their emotions intensified 42 seconds later when Martin Necas hammered the puck into the Sabres’ net to give Carolina a one-goal lead in the third period.

Jordan Greenway yelled at the officials. The crowd inside KeyBank Center booed mercilessly. It was the second controversial call against Dahlin in a span of seven minutes. Yet the body language Granato saw from his players inspired hope that it wouldn’t be a devastating blow.

Owen Power scored the tying goal only 73 second later. In overtime, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen delivered clutch saves after his teammates couldn’t break through. And, finally, in the shootout, Casey Mittelstadt scored in the fourth round to help Buffalo earn a 3-2 win over Carolina.

“The guys were to another level of (ticked) off, to be honest with you,” said Granato. “We were in a groove. We just needed that next level of determination and next level of conviction. … I just thought we needed a little bit of jam and compete, and I think that incited us a bit.”

Fifty-eight games into their season, the Sabres finally won three in a row, and, at 27-27-4, their points percentage is at .500 for the first time since Nov. 27. It was arguably one of their best performances at home this season, where, entering Sunday, they had earned the fifth-fewest points in the NHL.

Luukkonen made 30 saves between regulation and overtime, then stopped each of the four Hurricanes that he faced in the shootout. Mittelstadt clinched the win when he skated slowly down the right side, cut across the slot, then drew Martin out of position with a quick move before he scored with a wrist shot.

Despite the Sabres’ signs of growth in the third period – over the past two seasons, they’re fifth in the NHL in wins when leading at the second intermission – they could have crumbled when Necas scored for a 2-1 lead with 5:18 left in regulation.

Dahlin’s goaltender interference penalty wasn’t a surprising call. The NHL doesn’t want players crashing into vulnerable goalies. The Sabres were beside themselves, though, because Dahlin was called for interference earlier in the period when he was run over in Buffalo’s crease. Necas’ goal was a galvanizing moment.

“I thought we fought extremely hard and, obviously, maybe a couple of calls don’t go our way in the third,” said Mittelstadt. “The boys responded. Definitely fired us up. I love the way we fought.”

The Sabres were the better team before Necas’ goal. Carolina took advantage of a Buffalo defensive breakdown 2:40 into the game with Tony DeAngelo scoring on a backdoor play to make it 1-0. Buffalo had several chances to tie it, though, and the Hurricanes had yet to record a shot on goal in the second period when Jeff Skinner scored the equalizer on the power play 6:27 into the middle frame.

According to Natural Stat Trick, the Sabres had 16 high-danger scoring chances between regulation and overtime. One of the top defensive teams in the NHL, the Hurricanes (34-19-5) kept it tied late in the second and into the third by preventing the Sabres from capitalizing on the rebounds left in front of Martin.

Necas’ goal didn’t cause the Sabres to lose sight of what was working. Rookie winger Zach Benson chipped the puck in as an opponent applied pressure. Peyton Krebs took possession, then stickhandled behind Martin while surveying the ice. Power left the blue line and skated toward the slot, where he collected the pass from Krebs and snapped a shot that beat Martin with 4:05 left in the third period to tie it 2-2. Luukkonen clinched his 17th win by stopping Necas after Mittelstadt's shootout goal.

The Sabres are still 11 points back of the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card spot, but they’ve won five of their last seven games. Since Jan. 1, they’re fourth in the NHL in goals allowed per game and shots on goal per game. The progress is noticeable most nights. They’re back to playing with the speed that was a hallmark of their success last season, and their plan is to build off the collective push they conjured once Necas scored.

“Obviously, we all know, but we’re taking it game by game,” Mittelstadt said of winning three in a row. “Each game as its own. I don’t think one day affects the next. Huge to get a little momentum, and we have a huge road trip coming up.”

Here are other observations from the game:

1. Breakthrough​

The Sabres finally have a No. 1 goalie.
Luukkonen has earned that title with an elite two-month stretch. He has a .936 save percentage, 1.77 goals-against average and three shutouts in 17 starts since Dec. 30. He's recorded a save percentage of .900 or better in 13 of those appearances.

For the season, Luukkonen ranks eighth in the NHL in goals saved above expected, according to Evolving-Hockey, and he's third since Dec. 30. On Sunday, Luukkonen became the first Sabres goalie since Jhonas Enroth in 2014 to make four or more saves while not allowing a goal in a shootout.

2. ‘Incredible’ return​

It was evident as the game progressed how much the Sabres missed Power while he was out six games with an upper-body injury.
Power logged 23:05 of ice time, including a team-high 2:22 on the penalty kill, and made a noticeable impact in helping the Sabres quickly exit their zone to create offense at 5-on-5.

“Incredible,” said Granato. “I thought he was great. He played 20-plus minutes, scored a goal, but he was really good all the way through. Sometimes when a guy is out, you don’t see him, and you miss him, and I can tell you on the bench there were lots of moments today where you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s nice to have him in the lineup.'”

3. Standouts​

Greenway and Erik Johnson each had a shot block to help the Sabres kill Dahlin’s first penalty in the third period. Tage Thompson had five shots on goal and 11 shot attempts. He had a chance to win it in overtime because Alex Tuch knocked the puck away from a Hurricanes player, but Seth Jarvis managed to do the same to Thompson before he could attempt a shot on Martin.
Krebs continued his strong run of play with the pass to Power on the tying goal and finished with 15:02 of ice time. Benson also made a few smart decisions that helped Power get open against a man-on-man defensive system.

4. Top defenseman​

Dahlin joined elite company when he became the first NHL player since Erik Karlsson in 2016 to log at least 29 minutes of ice time in six consecutive games. Dahlin skated 31:43 against the Hurricanes and finished with five shots on goal, 11 shot attempts and four blocked shots.

Since Jan. 1, Dahlin’s average time on ice per game (26:46) is the highest mark in the NHL.

5. Next​

The Sabres hit the road to face the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively.