Don Granato went into the Buffalo Sabres’ dressing room between the second and third periods of their 3-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets with a different message than the one his team is used to hearing. This isn’t one we’ll see posted on team social media channels. The message, though, was simple. Granato thought his team, trailing 3-1 on the road, needed to compete harder. The third period was better, but that didn’t calm Granato’s frustration.
“Our guys finally decided to wake up and compete harder instead of waiting,” Granato told reporters after Friday’s game.
“I liked the way they responded. But it’s not about what I say. There’s guys in that room that know they need more and can do more. It’s all about elevate and compete. I think we’ve been waiting and waiting and not realizing that we haven’t elevated to the level we need to. We’ll solve a lot of problems. When you have challenges in different areas and multiple areas, they’re usually resolved with greater compete.”
That’s not a conversation Granato wanted to be having about these Sabres 17 games into the season. After the loss to the Jets, the Sabres are 7-9-1. A year ago at this point, the Sabres were 7-10 and seven games into an eight-game losing streak. Players talked a lot leading up to the season about how missing the playoffs by a single point last season underscored the importance of starting the season fast and starting games fast. Neither has happened.
Yes, the Sabres have shown marginal improvement as a defensive team, but the offense has disappeared too often. The Sabres have four goals in their last three games and have their first three-game losing streak of the season.
Against the Jets, the Sabres generated a ton of chances. At five-on-five, the Sabres had the advantage in shot attempts (50-34), shots (23-13), scoring chances (33-14) and high-danger scoring chances (17-4). A handful of great saves from Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck changed the outcome of the game, but the Sabres have made their margin of error too thin.
“We can’t wait for it to happen, wait to get down a goal, wait to get fired up by the coach or captain or whoever is talking on the bench,” Alex Tuch told reporters. “We have to go out and find it within ourselves. Guys have to elevate. If you’re not going to elevate this early in the season, why do it at all?”
After a scoreless first period, the Sabres went down 2-0 within the first five minutes of the second period. Cole Perfetti scored on a clean shot from the edge of the faceoff circle, and minutes later, Mason Appleton got behind Sabres defenseman Mattias Samuelsson and tapped in a net-front pass. Tuch got one back for the Sabres by picking up a loose puck in front and beating Hellebuyck. But the Jets went up 3-1 when a shot from the point floated by Eric Comrie thanks to a screen from his own defenseman Owen Power, who was on the ice for two goals against.
That left the Sabres chasing the game in the third period. That’s something they’ve done too often this season. They’re now 0-6 when trailing after two periods this season.
“I think we have competitive guys,” Granato said. “I just don’t think they realize they weren’t competing as hard as they can. That can be a quick solve.”
1. Granato said this three-game road trip would play a big role in helping him and general manager Kevyn Adams decide whether to keep Zach Benson around all year. Benson got off to a good start Friday against Winnipeg. He had 14:27 of ice time and an assist on the Sabres’ third-period goal that cut their deficit to one. Benson made a savvy play, collecting a breakout pass on the boards with a defender nearby. He protected the puck and got it back to Rasmus Dahlin, who found JJ Peterka with a stretch pass that became a breakaway goal.
“He has many more NHL habits than major junior habits,” Granato said of Benson after the game.
Benson caught a bad break near the end of the game, getting called for a questionable high-sticking penalty during a post-whistle scrum in which he was outnumbered. Granato thought at worst it should have been coincidental minors for each team. That penalty happened with just over two minutes to play and made the Sabres’ comeback attempt more difficult in the final moments.
2. Dahlin led the Sabres with nine shot attempts and particularly came alive offensively in the third period. He has the ability to take over games with his offensive instincts, skating and passing. That’s how he looked in the third period when he assisted on Peterka’s goal and generated a ton of offense outside of that. According to Natural Stat Trick, Dahlin had six individual scoring chances in all situations. And when Dahlin was on the ice at five-on-five, the Sabres had 11 high-danger chances for and allowed only one. With Tage Thompson out for about a month, Dahlin stepping up his offensive game is imperative.
3. Ryan Johnson continues to fit right into the Sabres’ lineup. The rookie defenseman finished with 16:54 of ice time, more than veterans Connor Clifton and Erik Johnson. When Ryan Johnson was on the ice at five-on-five, the Sabres had twice as many shots on net, a 13-4 advantage in scoring chances and a 7-2 advantage in high-danger chances. He wasn’t on the ice for a goal against.
“I love his game,” Dahlin said recently. “He’s so decisive and he’s so shifty with the puck. Defensively, he takes a lot of responsibility. He’s got the whole package. He’s making quick decisions out there. Plays around him get better, and he makes everyone around him have a lot of time with the puck because he makes the right plays.”
When the Sabres made roster moves Friday, Johnson stuck around and it’s easy to see why. The Sabres activated Comrie and Benson from injured reserve and put Thompson on injured reserve and sent forward Lukas Rousek back to the AHL to leave room for Johnson on the roster.
(Top photo of Mattias Samuelsson looking skyward after a second-period Winnipeg goal: James Carey Lauder / USA Today)