BUFFALO – In the first period Wednesday, after the lethargic Sabres coasted back during a power play and nearly fell behind 2-0 to the Carolina Hurricanes, Lindy Ruff finally had enough.
When the guilty players reached the bench, the coach reamed them out.
“The first period, it wasn’t a great period on our part,” Ruff said following the Sabres’ 3-2 overtime triumph inside the First Niagara Center. “Some of it was execution. Some of it was effort. Some of it was we were walking half asleep on the ice and no one busted back to even try to break it up.
“I was trying to light a little fire.”
Little? The Sabres roared out of the gate in the second period like Ruff had taken a blowtorch to a gasoline-drenched tire, scoring on their first two shifts.
By the end, their wretched power play scored two goals – the first time since Dec. 26. – including Jason Pominville’s winner from above the left circle 56 seconds into overtime, which ended the captain’s first slump this season.
“I thought we played one hell of a 40 minutes,” Ruff said. “It was a game we should’ve gotten way out in front of and pushed the score up.”
The Sabres’ seventh win in nine games moved them up to 10th place, two points back (72-70) of eighth-place Winnipeg for final Eastern Conference playoff spot. Technically, the Sabres are tied for ninth with Washington, which has played one less game.
“We just have to be excited for this opportunity,” said Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, who made only 22 saves, 17 fewer than Ward.
The team, given up for dead when it dropped to 15th place last month, is forging a remarkable run at the postseason.
Fifteen games remain for the Sabres, who play tonight in Boston. Is Ruff checking the standings?
“You’re damn rights I do,” he said. “I stare at the standings.”
For Ruff, the playoffs have already started.
“This is our playoffs,” he said. “We got to treat it as 4-1, 4-1. You can’t 2-2. You can’t go 3-2. You’re asking for help.”
The Sabres, whose 3-1 loss Monday in Winnipeg completed a four-game western swing, needed help early against the Hurricanes. The first home game after a long trip can often be a listless affair, especially early. Sure enough, former Sabre Jaroslav Spacek scored at 2:47.
But the Sabres began blitzing the Hurricanes in the second period, pumping 15 shots on goalie Cam Ward.
“We weren’t moving our feet,” Pominville said. “We weren’t working hard enough. It’s something we addressed and we responded really well.”
Tyler Myers scored 22 seconds in, and then struggling sniper Thomas Vanek followed on the power play at 1:02, knocking in Christian Ehrhoff’s rebound in front. Chad LaRose tied it later.
With zero points in four games, one goal in nine contests and only four tallies in his last 23 appearances, Vanek had been enduring arguably a career-worst slump.
In the morning, Ruff scuttled the speculation Vanek’s nursing a shoulder injury.
“He’s not battling anything,” he said.
Eight hours later, Vanek, who also assisted on Pominville’s goal, regained his early-season form.
“I thought (it was) by far the best he’s skated in a long time,” Ruff said. “He was really moving. His compete was good. He missed the net on a couple of key opportunities.”
Vanek added: “I don’t think I really played that much different than Winnipeg.”
The Austrian hadn’t been alone in his struggles. He and linemates Pominville and Derek Roy generated little during the road trip.
Ruff toyed with breaking up the alleged No. 1 line, but wanted to keep the other three trios intact.
“I liked what some of the other lines had done,” he said. “I thought, ‘Let’s let them battle through.’ I even said to Derek, ‘What do you want to do with your line?’ He said, ‘Let us work it out.’”
The stars rewarded Ruff, performing at an elite level much of the night. Vanek’s nine shots tied his career high.
“We weren’t happy,” said Pominville, who had two points. “I’m pretty sure Lindy wasn’t happy about the way we played on the west coast trip. Other guys were able to step up and we were able to win games.”
Pominville stepped up before the capacity crowd of 18,690 fans, whistling a one-timer past Ward. Ville Leino created the power play late in regulation by drawing a hooking penalty down low.