Sabres show potential in memorable season finale, send RJ off with OT win

Sabres show potential in memorable season finale, send RJ off with OT win

The crowd inside KeyBank Center serenaded Bills players with the ‘Shout’ song and fueled the Sabres with numerous chants of “Let’s Go Buffalo!”

There were audible gasps in response to the action on the ice and emotional applause to pay tribute to legendary broadcaster Rick Jeanneret. They gathered to bid farewell to the man who narrated some of the greatest triumphs in franchise history, but they also filled the building to watch a pesky Sabres team that’s inspired hope for a fan base that’s tired of tumult and disappointment.

The come-from-behind 3-2 overtime win over the Chicago Blackhawks in front of 16,505 fans Friday night to cap the 82-game 2021-22 season was a snapshot of all that’s changed on and off the ice for the Sabres since the club gathered for training camp back in September. They tied the score twice to force overtime, and Casey Mittelstadt scored the winning goal to clinch a 32-39-11 season record.

“Oh boy, I don’t even know what was going through my head,” Mittelstadt beamed. “It was a good way to end the year. Obviously, there have been some ups and downs for everyone. … It was a great way to end it for RJ.”

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On the ice, there were highlight-reel, tension-inducing plays by the foundational players who are the new faces of the franchise. Tage Thompson, a 24-year-old who switched to center in camp, scored his team-leading 38th goal of the season to tie the score 1-1 in the third period on a cross-ice pass from a rejuvenated Jeff Skinner.

Power, only 19 years old and eight games into his NHL career, scored his second goal on a shot through traffic to tie it again with 5:38 remaining in regulation. And Mittlestadt finished the job in overtime on a rebound created by Dylan Cozens.

The Sabres outshot the Blackhawks 19-4 in the third period and overtime.

“I think we just fed off the crowd and each other on the bench,” said Thompson. “I don’t think there was anyone that didn’t think that we were going to comeback and win that. I think the reason is the character we have in our group.”

Power and fellow defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, drafted first overall in 2021 and 2018, respectively, displayed their wizardry with the puck and mature play around their own net. The pair, along with Mattias Samuelsson and Henri Jokiharju, gives Buffalo a formidable top four on the blue line for their quest to reach the playoffs.

Alex Tuch, a Syracuse-area native acquired in the blockbuster trade that sent Jack Eichel to Vegas, energized his teammates and the crowd with relentless play with and without the puck. The lineup was filled with players who are expected to be on the Sabres for years to come, including recent first-round draft choices Cozens, Mittelstadt and Peyton Krebs, who also arrived in the Eichel deal.

The sounds. That voice. We’ll never forget it. Jeanneret got to call one last winning goal from the Buffalo Sabres in the final game of his career.

Of the 16 skaters in the Sabres’ lineup, only three are pending unrestricted free agents: Vinnie Hinostroza, Mark Pysyk and John Hayden. It’s possible all three could be back with the club next season. Ten in the lineup were under the age of 25. And the Sabres’ progress across the past two months illustrates that the young core’s potential is far from reached.

Even through a rigorous schedule, the Sabres’ .611 points percentage since March 2 ranked 13th entering Friday. Overall, Buffalo’s points percentage saw its biggest improvement since 2015-16, which only occurred because the franchise tanked the previous season. The Sabres went 16-9-3 across March and April. They finished fifth out of eight teams in the Atlantic Division after being picked to land at the bottom.

“To all of the fans that came out tonight, I think we took it to heart by not wanting to let down RJ our the fans in the building,” said Thompson.

And the Sabres have accomplished this despite a long list of injuries, a Covid-19 outbreak and Tuch’s late arrival. Craig Anderson, the team’s top goaltender, missed the final three games with a lingering injury. Dustin Tokarski was forced to start both games of the back-to-back to cap the season.

In addition to Thompson’s breakthrough season, Skinner rebounded with 33 goals to give the Sabres their first tandem with 30-plus since 2010-11. Victor Olofsson and Kyle Okposo both reached the 20-goal mark, while Tuch set a new career-high in points per game. Seemingly every player on the team, no matter their experience, improved under coach Don Granato and his staff.

The Sabres’ 229 goals were the franchise’s most since they last reached the playoffs in 2010-11. Most of the roster, as well as the entire coaching staff and management team, will be back next season.

The Sabres seemed to win back a large portion of their disillusioned fan base with the same relentless work ethic of the franchise’s best teams. Unlike early in the season, fans are no longer coming to games wearing jerseys featuring names of the team’s former core players. Now, you’ll see Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens, Tuch and Power, among others.

The excitement has reached the other team in town. Bills first-round pick Kaair Elam attended the game with a dozen of his new teammates, including Josh Allen. The crowd roared when the group was shown in a suite at the game.

It was a party at KeyBank Center, capped by the Sabres saluting their fans from center ice. And though it will be the last until hockey returns in the fall, they showed the crowd that there should be more to celebrate in the near future.

“You can only hope to win people [over] to love it the way we do,” said Granato. “I try to create an environment, we do, to help our players find that passion to play and we know that if we can play that way, the building will feel that way. And if the building feels that way, it’s going to be really special. We’re still building, but I do love how our guys moved toward that this year.”

Here are other observations from the finale

Tokarski delivered another gutsy performance under difficult circumstances. He made 27 saves in the 5-0 loss to Boston on Thursday and had little time to rest before starting the finale. His breakaway stop on Sam Lafferty occurred shortly before Power’s tying goal. 

Domanik Kubalik and Dylan Strome scored for Chicago (28-42-12), which took a 2-1 lead on the latter’s goal with 10:27 left in regulation. 

The Sabres could have simply kept Aaron Dell on the roster to backup Tokarski with Anderson unavailable, but the club chose to reward Michael Houser’s dedication and perseverance. Houser, 29, was recalled Friday from Cincinnati after a 42-save playoff shutout for the Cyclones. It was approximately three months earlier that at a Covid-19 positive test prevented Houser from playing at least one more game with the Sabres.

Similarly, the Sabres had Pysyk draw back into the lineup on defense to replace Casey Fitzgerald, who joined the Amerks.

Kyle Okposo arrived at the arena early Friday, like he does ahead of every game. He wasn’t preparing to play, though. A lower-body injury prevented the 34-year-old winger from suiting up with his teammates in the finale. But Okposo wanted to be around the rest of the Sabres to immerse in the final night of their seven-month journey.

Okposo was announced before the game as the recipient of the Sabres’ Rick Martin Award, which is voted on by the fans.

“You’re missing your biggest leader in Kyle,” Granato said with a blend of pride and sadness. 

Injured Sabres goalie Malcolm Subban, a Toronto native, sang an outstanding rendition of the American national anthem before the game that conjured smiles from his teammates and rousing applause from the crowd. Subban suffered a season-ending injury Jan. 11 but has remained around the team. He’s a pending unrestricted free agent.

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