Ten thoughts on the Sabres’ first 3-game winning streak of the season

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Entering Sunday, there had been 113 three-game winning streaks across the NHL. The Buffalo Sabres didn’t have one. As much as any stat, that one underscores the exasperation Western New Yorkers have felt about their hockey team. The Sabres have been unable to find enough consistency to keep themselves in the playoff race.

That’s what made Sunday meaningful for the Sabres, regardless of what the standings say. They came into their matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes having won two games on the road, 3-2 against the Canadiens and 2-1 against the Blue Jackets. The Hurricanes, who have the fifth most points in the Eastern Conference, were a different challenge. And the Sabres rose to it, earning a 3-2 shootout win in a thrilling, back-and-forth game. Not only did the Sabres win three in a row for the first time all season, they are also now back to .500 for the first time since Nov. 27.

“We’re not forcing anything,” Rasmus Dahlin said. “We’re playing as a team right now.”

It’s been a while since the Sabres played a game as entertaining as this one in front of their home fans. The arena wasn’t full, with attendance announced at 15,690, but those in the building got a hearty salute from the players after Casey Mittelstadt scored in the shootout and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped every Carolina attempt to get the win.

Here are 10 thoughts on Buffalo’s first three-game winning streak of the season.

1. Luukkonen turned in another incredible game for the Sabres. He leads the NHL in goals against average (1.76) and save percentage (.936) since Jan. 1. The Sabres needed him to stop 30 of the 32 shots he faced in this game. He also stopped all nine of the high-danger shots the Hurricanes had and was perfect in the shootout.

“He held his ground,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “The body language was significant and nice to see and a comfort to see how confident he looked.”

Luukkonen’s emergence as a legit No. 1 goalie over the past two months has been a major bright spot for the Sabres. He didn’t play until the Sabres’ seventh game of the season and only got to play five in a row at that point because of injuries to Eric Comrie and Devon Levi. He’s now played 17 of the Sabres’ last 20 games and earned his spot as Buffalo’s unquestioned starter.

“I think we’re all extremely happy for him,” Mittelstadt said. “We’ve seen how hard he works and how hard he fights, obviously, in practice and just in general, the kind of person he is. I think I speak for everyone when we say we absolutely love playing in front of him.”

2. Even the two goals against Luukkonen in this game weren’t terrible. Owen Power and Erik Johnson were on the ice for the Hurricanes’ first goal of the game. Johnson got too aggressive on Carolina’s zone entry, and then Power didn’t finish his check behind the net. The result was a tick-tack passing play that helped Tony DeAngelo get an easy look in front of the net.

The second goal was a one-timer from Martin Necas on the power play. The Sabres were only short-handed because Rasmus Dahlin crashed into Hurricanes goalie Spencer Martin while following up a rebound. Dahlin was called for goaltender interference, but the Sabres weren’t pleased with the call because it appeared like Michael Bunting pushed Dahlin. Luukkonen didn’t let those goals rattle his confidence. He stopped both Hurricanes shots in overtime and was perfect in the shootout.

3. Dahlin’s penalty ended up being a spark for the Sabres. The fans were incensed by the call, and the players weren’t thrilled, either. They were even more angry once Necas scored on the power play to give the Hurricanes a 2-1 lead. But the response is what Granato loved. He saw right away when the penalty was called that his players were “at another level” and “pissed off.”

“And we funneled it the right way,” Granato said. “We elevated our compete instantly. And you got a goal within a minute later.”

4. That game-tying goal by the Sabres was quite the play by three of the team’s youngest players. Zach Benson started the play by pressuring the Red Wings on their breakout, creating a loose puck. He then got that puck and slapped it to a spot behind the net, where Peyton Krebs won a race to the puck. That broke up the man-to-man coverage the Hurricanes were playing. When he got the puck, Krebs didn’t rush. He paused and surveyed the zone, waiting for the right opportunity. As he did that, Benson crashed the net and drew multiple Carolina players with him. That opened up the slot for Power, who snuck in from the blue line. Krebs hit him with a perfect pass and Power scored in his first game back after missing the last six with an injury.

5. This was the fifth game since Granato put Krebs on a line with Benson and JJ Peterka, and the results have been encouraging. The Sabres have 61 percent of the shot attempts, 62 percent of the goals and 66 percent of the high-danger chances when that line is on the ice at five-on-five over the last five games. That game-tying assist was just the latest example of what Krebs can do when he’s surrounded by linemates who can match his skill and offensive instincts.

“Krebs was a first-round pick, so he’s obviously got a lot of skill and a lot of talent,” Power said. “For him to be in there and play a bit of a different role has helped a lot and given him a lot of confidence.”

6. Dahlin had a season-high 31:43 of ice time on Sunday and continues to carry a massive workload for the Sabres. In February, Dahlin is averaging 29:01 of ice time per game, the most in the NHL and 1:16 more per game than the next closest skater.

“He’s amazing,” Granato said. “He’s never not giving you everything he has. He’s emptying the tank every shift, and that’s impressive and that’s what the rest of our crew and guys need to see. I think he’s a great role model for the entire group of how to play and give everything you have at a very highly competitive level. I mean, he is ultra-competitive. Physical and gritty and does it every single shift.”

What’s crazy is Dahlin seems to be playing even better with more ice time. The Sabres have 11 goals and have only allowed three when he’s been on the ice during that stretch. They also have 55 percent of the high-danger chances with him on the ice this month.

7. Jeff Skinner got up for this game against his former team. The Sabres had a 12-4 advantage in scoring chances when he was on the ice at five-on-five. And Skinner got a power-play goal to give him two goals in the last three games. He’s snapped out of the scoring funk he was stuck in for a few weeks.

8. Tage Thompson, meanwhile, is still trying to find a consistent scoring rhythm. He led the team with 11 shot attempts and seven individual scoring chances but didn’t end up with a single point in this game. He has just two goals in his last 16 games and hasn’t scored a five-on-five goal in that time.

9. The Sabres have a tough stretch of games this week with road games against the Panthers and Lighting before returning home to play the Golden Knights and Winnipeg on a back-to-back next weekend. If the Sabres really want to turn some heads, this would be the week to do it.

10. Not to be a wet blanket, but the Sabres are still 11 points out of a playoff spot after the Lightning and Red Wings both won on Sunday. That’s why the playoff math will be working against the Sabres regardless of how long this winning streak continues.

(Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig / USA Today)

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