Sabres building confidence as they prepare for three-game road trip

November 14, 2018 - 10:55 am

Tuesday night was a significant win for the Buffalo Sabres as they held off a high-tempo Tampa Bay Lightning team, 2-1 at KeyBank Center.

The Sabres got goals from Jeff Skinner and Kyle Okposo to get Buffalo ahead, while Carter Hutton slammed the door on Tampa Bay, stopping 29 shots en route to the team's third consecutive win.

Heading into the game, Tampa Bay entered the night as one of the best teams in the National Hockey League with a 12-4-1 record, which was good for 25 points and the top spot in the Eastern Conference. After a fairly even first period of play, Tampa Bay turned up the intensity with 22 shots on goal in the final 40 minutes of regulation. They also shut down the Sabres defensively, limiting the team to just two shots on goal in the second period and eight shots total in the final two periods. However, one of those shots in the second stanza resulted in Okposo's goal.

Despite the onslaught that was brought upon them in the later portions of the game, the team was happy to come away with two points in the standings.

"They've been one of the top teams over the last few years," said defenseman Zach Bogosian on Wednesday. "I thought we probably didn't play our best game, but we found a way to win. That's the important thing. Moving forward, we know we can close out games like that."

"I think [Carter Hutton] played well, kind of stole one for us," said forward Casey Mittelstadt. You have to find some ways to win when you're not at your best, and I think that was good for us to show some resiliency last night to stick with it. A lot of guys had some key blocked shots, some key plays and obviously [Hutton] probably did most of it, but it was a good win."

During the three-game winning streak, the Sabres have a pair of comebacks against the Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks, and the game against Tampa Bay where they held off an aggressive attack to grab six points in the standings. While the play of the team has not been perfect, it has been a positive step forward as the team continues to rebuild from the past few years of bad hockey.

"Our last little stretch here, we've been playing pretty well," Mittelstadt said. "There are some games where we need to stick with it a little better, but we're getting wins and we're going to try and keep it rolling.

"It's obviously good to be on the winning side here, but we're only 18 games in. It's one thing to do good in the first 18, but we have to keep it rolling here, keep it moving and find ourselves in the playoffs. That would be the goal here, and once you get there, anything can happen."

As of now, the Sabres currently sit with the eighth best record in the league standings, tied with the Boston Bruins, Columbus Blue Jackets and Canucks with 22 points. In terms of the Wild Card standings, the Sabres are sitting comfortably in the first wild card spot ahead of the Montreal Canadiens, and only trail the Toronto Maple Leafs by two points and Lightning by three.

When you compare this Sabres team of those from years past, there are a number of differences in the look of the teams and their play on the ice. One thing that stands out is the confidence level of the squad, which has drastically improved with the team getting out to a hot start. That is important, especially with the Sabres heading out on a three-game road trip against three playoff caliber teams.

"I think we’re building confidence. I think we’re showing that we can win in all sorts of games, right?" said goalie Carter Hutton. "We have a big comeback win against Vancouver, and then this game we hold a 2-1 lead for the majority of the game and then we clamp it down with a great third period and we win a game, right? So we’re kind of building different things here, and I think as a group, it’s just gaining confidence here in this internal group, because winning in this league isn’t easy, you got to find ways to win and you got to learn how to win, and I think that’s what we’re doing here."

The Sabres open up their three-game road trip on Friday night when they face the Winnipeg Jets, who currently sit in third place in the Central Division with a 10-5-1 record and 21 points. They are currently six points back of the Nashville Predators for the lead in the division.

The Jets have become one of the more electric teams to face off with in the NHL as they provide a well-rounded attack on both ends of the ice. If any teams sits back a bit too much, it's similar to when a shark smells blood in the water - they attack with a vengeance.

Mittelstadt is aware of just how good Winnipeg is, and is hopeful they can put together a good 60-minute effort and come away with another two points.

"To get one in Winnipeg would be huge, they're one of the better teams in the league," Mittelstadt said. "We'll try to go there, get a win and then move on. It's definitely fun and I think we're excited to go on the road. We've been home for five-to-six days, which is nice but it's fun to be on the road.

"It should be a good game for us. It's definitely a good test, a really good opportunity to get a couple of points. Any time you can steal points from guys in the west is definitely huge. We're looking forward to it."

The Jets are currently riding a two-game winning streak with the chance to extend it on Wednesday night at the MTS Centre against the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.

On Saturday, the Sabres head south and back across the border to St. Paul, Minnesota to take on the Wild, who sit three points back of the Predators with a 11-5-2 record in the Central.

For Mittelstadt, it will be the first time that the 19-year-old will be playing in front of his hometown crowd as a NHL player. Last season, Mittelstadt played his college hockey at the University of Minnesota, where he scored 11 goals and registered 30 points in 34 games with the Golden Gophers. After the team missed out on making the NCAA Tournament, he decided to turn pro and sign his entry-level contract with the Sabres.

Mittelstadt is looking forward to the chance to play in front of his friends and family in his home state.

"It will be good. I haven't seen a lot of people from there in a while, and I've got a lot of people that will be at the game," Mittelstadt said. "It will be good to see them, and at the same time I'm kind of happy to get it over with too. It turns into a bit of chaos, especially when it's your first time back there. I haven't seen my friends from home in three months now, so it will be good to say hi to them, and see my brothers, see my parents, things like that. It should be good."

So far this season, it has been a growth year for Mittelstadt in his rookie season in the NHL. He has scored two goals and picked up four assists in his first 18 games, which may not seem like much for a kid that has been thought to be a possible candidate for the Calder Trophy this season, but he is producing and creating plenty of chances for himself offensively while shoring up his defensive play as well.

"I think I just [have to] wait, be patient and [the points] will come," Mittelstadt said. "I've had plenty of chances, plenty of plays that I've made that go in on most other nights. For me, it's been good and I just need to keep building on it. The chances are always huge. Once you stop getting chances, you kind of worry. But as long as you're getting chances, they will start going in and start making plays once you get a few. Then, all of the sudden, they all go in. It's something to build off of with the chances, just have to start putting them in."

The road trip wraps up with a trip to Pittsburgh to play the Penguins on Monday night at PPG Paints Arena, before the team returns home to play the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday night.

If the Sabres are to keep pace with the rest of the conference and remain in the playoff discussion, this road trip will be a pivotal one. If the Sabres can get three or four points out of a possible six on this trip, that can certainly keep them in the thick of things as Thanksgiving approaches.

"It's going to be a huge challenge the whole week," said defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. "We just have to believe in us. We're a pretty good hockey team when we play well. We have to be confident and play offense against good teams. We can't just respect them too much and rely on our goalie all night.

"We haven't really played a full 60 [minutes] yet, and we've still been able to get some wins."

The Sabres only held a meeting at KeyBank Center on Wednesday, followed by a team stretch. The team will return to the ice on Thursday before leaving for Winnipeg later in the day.

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