Sabres keep the heat on playoff teams with complete win over Islanders


Staff member

The playoff race is on. For real.

Just nine days ago, the Buffalo Sabres were 10 points out of the final wild-card slot and about to trade their leading scorer and captain.
Pretty amazing how things can change this quickly.

For the second time in three weeks, the Sabres have won three games in a row and the timing of this run is perfect.

The chase heated up even more Thursday night in KeyBank Center as the Sabres scored three goals in the first 10 minutes of the second period and that was enough to roll past the New York Islanders, 4-0.

Victor Olofsson, Dylan Cozens and Zach Benson scored in that stretch for the Sabres, who were dominant most of the night in outshooting the Islanders, 37-21. Benson added an empty-netter with 4:54 left for his first two-goal game in the NHL. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen earned his fifth shutout of the season, one off the league lead.

"A complete effort again," said Benson, who has nine goals on the season and five points over the last two games. "It was a full 60 (minutes)."

The Sabres improved to 32-30-5 and got within three points of both the Islanders and Detroit, which dropped its seventh straight game, a 4-1 home loss to Arizona. Buffalo drubbed Detroit, 7-3, here on Tuesday and plays the Wings again Saturday afternoon in Little Caesars Arena in the opener of a five-game road trip that will be the longest of the season.

The Sabres are 17-11-1 since the new year hit, a 99-point pace when projected over the entire season. They are 5-2-1 in their last eight games and 8-3-1 in their last 12.

The 25-year-old Luukkonen has never been this confident in his NHL career and his team is following suit. The Sabres are playing fearless, as head coach Don Granato likes to say, and the questions raised by an impending trade deadline are no longer relevant.

"I think people try to make reads what the team is doing at that point, what the trades are," Luukkonen said. "Are they quitting? Are they trying to make it? In the locker room the whole year all we want to do is win and make the playoffs. ... Now there are no more changes. Getting through that, all the focus is at the game in hand and try to win the next one."

"Our belief is higher than ever right now," Cozens said. "I think I said a month ago that we still believe in this room that we can do it and we're just focusing on each day taking one one day at a time, one game at a time, one shift at a time and just chipping away."

Pretty good approach. The Sabres were absolutely dominant for the second straight game in the first period. They scored four goals on Tuesday but it could have been easy to get frustrated with a scoreless tie after 20 minutes on Thursday even though they didn't give up a shot on goal in the first 10 minutes. Didn't matter.

They kept playing the same way and finally got rewarded with Olofsson's power-play goal at 4:28 off a beautiful diagonal pass from JJ Peterka. The Islanders were 8-0 when scoring first under new coach Patrick Roy, so taking the lead was paramount in this game, and Buffalo did it.

"They want us to make mistakes and capitalize and they want to get an early lead and just kind of shut us down," Cozens said. "So we knew how important it was to try and get that first one, just play the right way to start the game and just get pucks behind them."

Cozens made it 2-0 at 8:15, finding himself all alone in front to pump home a Connor Clifton rebound. Benson made it 3-0 at 9:41, tipping home a Henri Jokiharju shot. Game over.

"I haven't had one like that in a while and I just tried to do my best to put it in a spot," said Cozens of his 15th goal and 40th point of the season. "When I saw that puck coming to me, I was salivating, I guess."

Here are more observations on the latest win:

1. Luukkonen stays hot​

The Buffalo goalie has four of his five shutouts since the near year and that's the most in the league. His season stats are a 2.38 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. But since Jan. 1, he leads the league in both categories (1.87/.932) among all goalies who have played at least 10 games.

"He's been incredible. We've got so much confidence in him back there," Cozens said. "We know he's going to make big saves. He's been arguably the best goalie in the league for the last while. He's just been outstanding back there for us."

"I feel like as a group, there's nothing to lose now," Luukkonen said. "It's not like at the start of the year, if you're making mistakes. ... There's no reason to back down now."

2. Olofsson finds the mark

With the trades of Kyle Okposo and Casey Mittelstadt, Olofsson is finally getting a chance to play regularly again in a season in which he's sat out 27 of the 67 games. His goal was his second in the last five games after he had not scored since early December.

The line of Olofsson with Tyson Jost and Eric Robinson is causing havoc in the offensive zone, and Olofsson connected on the power play Thursday when his team needed him.

"A big, big goal by Victor and our second power play," Granato said. "(Jeff) Skinner, and Vic, one heck of a goal. And it's nice to see those guys play such an integral part because they worked and worked and worked. You're teetering on a little bit of frustration when you're trying to keep the guys from getting frustrated because they were playing the right way and really just hit the repeat button on it."

3. Around the boards​

  • The Sabres have seven straight home wins against the Islanders for the first time. New York has not won here since Feb. 16, 2021.
  • With his assist on Benson’s second goal, Bowen Byram joined John Van Boxmeer (1979) as the only two Sabres defensemen to record five or more points in their first four games with Buffalo. Van Boxmeer had a goal and four assists while Byram has three goals, two assists. Byram was Buffalo's ice time leader at 23:24.
  • The Sabres have evened their home record at 17-17-1. They're 5-1 downtown since that bizarre Feb. 19 loss to Anaheim when they out-attempted the Ducks, 71-29, but lost 4-3