Observations: UPL makes 25 saves to help Sabres earn fifth straight road win


Staff member

Connor Clifton’s shot wasn’t remarkable.

Clifton collected a pass from Jacob Bryson and generated momentum with some smooth footwork near the blue line to snap the puck toward the Columbus Blue Jackets net as multiple Buffalo Sabres hovered around the crease.

Blue Jackets goalie Daniil Tarasov was in position to make a routine save, yet the puck hit him in the shoulder before it rolled over the goal line to give the Sabres a one-goal lead in the third period at Nationwide Arena.

The Sabres made numerous impressive plays in the offensive zone Friday night. Tage Thompson stickhandled around Blue Jackets defensemen, Peyton Krebs’ best game of the season included a breakaway and Tarasov had to face multiple odd-man rushes in the first period.

Yet the goal that stood as the game-winner in the Sabres’ 2-1 victory over the Blue Jackets was Clifton’s routine wrister. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen made 25 saves, and his teammates played shut-down defense while Columbus had an extra attacker for the final 90 seconds of regulation.

“It was an important win,” Luukkonen said after his 16th win of the season. “It’s kind of what we’ve been missing this year, winning these 2-1 games.”

It was the first time this season that Buffalo (26-27-4) won while scoring fewer than three goals, and Luukkonen’s clutch saves in the third period continued the team’s impressive play away from KeyBank Center. The Sabres have won five consecutive games on the road, which is tied for the fifth-longest streak in franchise history.

Of the Sabres’ 64 shot attempts Friday night, 37 were on the Blue Jackets’ net. Thompson led Buffalo with six, while Krebs and JJ Peterka had four apiece. Columbus had only 15 shots in the final 40 minutes, though its talented forwards were guilty of overpassing in key situations.

The Sabres weren’t in control throughout, though. Dmitri Voronkov scored a power-play goal on a backdoor tap-in with 7:55 left in the first period to give the Blue Jackets a 1-0 lead. Buffalo was 7-23-3 this season when allowing the first goal and, despite its offense showing signs of improvement recently, it’s not scoring at the rate it did last season.

Tarasov gave the Blue Jackets some stellar goaltending early. He got a piece of Thompson’s shot from the slot, then stopped Krebs on a breakaway. The Sabres had only two shots on four power plays Friday night. They tied it, 1-1, on another routine offensive play. Standing near the left wall, Zemgus Girgensons snapped a quick shot that went off Tarasov and in with 3:44 left in the first period.

“I feel like we’ve hit 40 shots every game over the last four or five,” said Thompson. “Creating a lot of offense, but it’s one of those things where they’re not going in right now. When they’re not going in, you have to find other ways to win. Obviously, Upie’s been doing a great job of keeping games real tight for us and standing on his hand, which gives us a chance to win when we’re only scoring one or two. I think just keep doing the right things and keep generating those chances and, eventually, they’ll start rolling for us.”

In 15 appearances since Jan. 6, Luukkonen has a .934 save percentage and 1.81 goals-against average. Thompson credited Luukkonen for the Sabres entering Friday with the fewest goals allowed since Jan. 1. There’s more to the improved team defense, though. Buffalo is quickly exiting the defensive zone, rather than attempting too many cross-ice passes. It has allowed the Sabres to carry the puck with more speed through the neutral zone, leading to more scoring chances.

The offensive breakthrough hasn’t come yet, though. The Sabres have scored fewer than three goals in 14 of their last 18 games. They had several chances to build a lead Friday, particularly on the power play in the second period. Tarasov made key saves, though, until Clifton’s goal 3:05 into the third period gave Buffalo the separation it needed.

“A lot of times, earlier in the year, we were waiting for the puck to come to us,” said Krebs. “Last year, I thought it came to us like that a little bit. This year, it’s been a little bit more difficult and now we’re starting to demand that we get the puck. We’re starting to get to those dirty areas and it’s showing.”

Here are other observations from the game:

1. Stepping up

Injuries to Owen Power and Mattias Samuelsson have caused Granato to lean on Rasmus Dahlin more than at any time this season. Dahlin has delivered some of his best performances, continuing Friday when he had 11 shot attempts in a team-high 29:54 of ice time. Dahlin has logged at least 28 minutes in seven of the last eight games. The Sabres outshot the Blue Jackets, 15-8, when Dahlin was on the ice at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick.

2. Trending up

Krebs’ confidence is surging.

The center is finally getting an opportunity on a scoring line with Peterka and Zach Benson. Krebs has also shown marked improvement in the faceoff dot, winning at least 50 percent of his draws in nine of the 10 nine games. He was on the second power-play unit Friday and made several impressive plays with the puck. He set up Jeff Skinner in the slot and challenged Tarasov with a pair of one-timers during the second period. Later, Krebs stickhandled around Erik Gudbranson to earn a shot from the left circle.

Krebs was on the ice in the final moments of regulation to protect the league, and he had four shots on goal in 15:46.

“Really good, actually,” Krebs said when asked how he felt about his game. “Really starting to click with my linemates. Just trying to demand the puck each and other night. The points aren’t coming, but I feel like we’re creating some great momentum for the team, winning faceoffs.”

3. Veteran help

Contenders are going to be interested in Girgensons ahead of the March 8 trade deadline. He can play left wing or center – Granato has used him at the latter recently – and he’s generating scoring chances in a fourth-line role. Girgensons has scored in consecutive games and possesses speed that should help him stand out among the depth forwards available. It’s unclear, though, if his lack of shorthanded ice time will impact his market.

His 11:34 average ice time per game is the lowest mark of his 10-year NHL career, and he has six goals with zero assists in 39 games.

4. Defense watch

The Sabres need Power to return from the upper-body injury that’s kept him out of the lineup the past six games. He’s skated with the team in each of the past three days, albeit in a yellow non-contact jersey, and his absence has led to an increased workload for Henri Jokiharju.

Erik Johnson was too ill to face the Blue Jackets, and his absence was felt on the penalty kill when Jokiharju had trouble tying up Voronkov on Columbus’ goal. Kale Clague was limited to only 8:31, but Bryson stepped up with an assist in 20:18.

5. Waiting game

Thompson has two goal and five points in his last seven games. His 16 goals this season are far below what he expected after he produced 47 in 2022-23. He was the Sabres’ best player against the Blue Jackets, though, and he’s had at least five shots on goal in five of the last eight games.

“Obviously you want to score, and you want them to go in,” said Thompson. “It’s frustrating when they don’t, but if you’re creating, that means you’re playing good hockey. It would be a different story if I wasn’t creating, or we weren’t generating any offensive chances. But I feel like our line has had five or six Grade-As every single game.”

6. Next

The Sabres host the Carolina Hurricanes in KeyBank Center on Sunday night at 6 p.m.