Sabres roll over Red Wings to inch closer to wild-card spot


Staff member

Alex Tuch rushed the blue line, forcing Detroit Red Wings defenseman Ben Chiarot to desperately retreat to the neutral zone.

Tuch won the race, reaching the puck with enough separation to cut across the slot and beat goalie Alex Lyon with a backhand shot to give the Buffalo Sabres the first goal of the game in KeyBank Center. He lifted his left hand in celebration, a gesture that seemed to transform the crowd from tame to raucous.

For weeks, the Sabres have slowly regained the speed, skill and swagger that made them one of the NHL’s most dangerous offensive teams last season. They finally broke through Tuesday night with a performance that changed the complexion of the Eastern Conference standings and showed again that they’re not ready to wave the white flag.

Tuch sparked a four-goal first period, the Sabres added three in the second and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen outperformed two Red Wings goalies as Buffalo earned a 7-3 win over their Atlantic Division foe.

Out of playoff contention for months, the Sabres (31-30-5) played their way back into the race with an 8-4-1 record in their last 13 games to draw within five points of the Red Wings (33-36-5) and New York Islanders for the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card playoff spot.

"That's a big two points for us in the standings, so just gotta keep chugging along here," said new Sabres defenseman Bowen Byram.

It’s a stunning development when you consider that the Sabres traded their leading scorer, Casey Mittelstadt, and captain, Kyle Okposo, less than one week earlier. Byram, the ultra-skilled defenseman acquired for Mittelstadt, delivered two goals and several impressive plays to give Buffalo an edge in its first of two meetings against Detroit this week.

Zach Benson, Jeff Skinner, Connor Clifton and JJ Peterka also had a goal apiece, while Luukkonen made 21 saves to earn his 21st win. The Sabres chased Lyon in the first period by scoring four goals on 12 shots. His replacement, James Reimer, didn’t fare better, either, and allowed three goals on 26 shots.

The Sabres continued their strong defensive play, punctuated by Byram breaking up a 2-on-1 pass to Patrick Kane. They’ve allowed the fourth-fewest goals per game since Jan. 1, but they lost their scoring touch while trying to evolve into a mature, defensively responsible team. They overwhelmed the Red Wings from the start of the game.

"You could tell early that we were on our game pretty good," said Sabres coach Don Granato. "That’s what you want."

After Chiarot cut Detroit’s deficit to one goal in the first period, the Sabres responded by scoring twice in 2:29. Clifton added to the lead early in the second, hammering a one-timer from near the left wall to make it 5-1. Byram capitalized on a rebound created by Tage Thompson to add to the lead.

Peterka punctuated the period with his shot from the left circle that went over Reimer’s glove, giving Buffalo a 7-2 advantage at the second intermission. The Sabres had scored three or fewer goals in 14 of their previous 16 games, but they may have found a style of play that’s sustainable, unlike the one they used during their 91-point finish last season.

Icing the youngest roster in the NHL, the Sabres have found a way to press out following a deadline that many thought signaled the end to their faint playoff hopes.

"Honestly, just going out and playing," said Tuch. "Shift by shift, come and work every day. We’re a really young team, but we’re going to try to get better individually and as a team. That’s been our goal and obviously we lost a couple key pieces there during the deadline, but we got a couple guys stepping in. That next-man-up mentality has been huge, and I think it’s been happening all year long and we’re going to need it down the stretch."

Fifteen games remain on the Sabres' schedule. They'll need to continue to pile up points while receiving help in the standings. Their opponent Thursday, the New York Islanders, have won seven of their last 10. Then Buffalo travels to Detroit for a game Saturday before a four-game trip through Seattle, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary.

While Buffalo is on the rise, Detroit is sinking fast. The Red Wings have lost six straight without their captain, Dylan Larkin, and they saw firsthand Tuesday night that at least one team behind them in the standings is going to put up a fight.

"We’re pretty lucky to be able to play teams we’re chasing so many times down the stretch here," said Byram. "We definitely have to take advantage of that if we want to get in. It’s a big stretch of hockey for us, and we’ve got to be ready to go every night."

Here are other observations from the game:

1. Better goaltending​

It wasn’t long ago that Buffalo was on the wrong side of ugly goaltending. Luukkonen was the difference again Tuesday, though. He stopped Joe Veleno’s low shot seconds before Tuch scored on a breakaway for the first goal of the game. Luukkonen wasn’t tested early. He faced only six shots in the first period. But it’s apparent that he’s given the Sabres confidence they haven’t had in a goalie in some time.

Since Dec. 30, Luukkonen has a 15-8-1 record, .929 save percentage and 1.95 goals-against average.

“Definitely Upie’s the big reason for that, and I think there’s guys taking more accountability in their own plays,” Sabres winger Zemgus Girgensons said when asked about the team's transformation since January 1.

2. Breaking out​

It's been a struggle for Peterka recently.

He had two goals in his previous 17 games and sat for the latter portion of the Sabres' shootout win over the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday. His shot that beat Reimer should take the pressure off. Peterka gets in his own head, and he hasn't learned how to play through frustration. He also dealt with the flu recently, which hasn't helped him re-establish a rhythm.

3. Stepping up​

Benson needed a game like this.

The rookie winger had two goals and eight points in his previous 33 games. His defense remained solid, and he was still making an impact on the forecheck, but he wasn’t scoring. He finally broke through against the Red Wings with a goal and two assists in the first period, becoming the third 18-year-old in Sabres history with a three-point period. The others are Phil Housley (Oct. 17, 1982) and Pierre Turgeon (Nov. 1, 1987).

"It’s a good night for him," Granato said of Benson. "He’s put a lot of work in and to have a three-point night – you can probably guess it was a his first three-point night, I’m sure – but he’s put in the work in. Lots of detail in his game, so for him to produce, he’s earned it."

4. Big add​

Byram became the first Sabres defenseman to record four or more points in their first three games with the club since Taylor Fedun from Nov. 17-21, 2016.

Byram also became the 20th defenseman in NHL history to score three or more goals in their first three games with a franchise, the first to do so since Kurtis Foster from Nov. 19-25, 2005 with Minnesota.

In four games with Buffalo, Byram's average ice time is 24:39, second on the team behind Rasmus Dahlin, and the Sabres have outscored opponents 10-2 at 5-on-5 when he's been on the ice.

"Obviously Bo’s been a big part of that and the turnaround," said Tuch. "Obviously losing a guy like Mittsy is never easy. … But the return we got, he’s been instrumental in our latest successes. Obviously, he’s lighting it up on the scoresheet, but it’s each and every shift.

"Making a good defensive play, getting the puck up as quick as possible, moving the puck, skating with it and creating odd-man rushes and keeping the defensemen on their heels has been, I think, has been huge."

5. Next​

The Sabres will host the New York Islanders on Thursday in KeyBank Center at 7:30 p.m.