BUFFALO – On Sunday morning, shortly before the Sabres began their 6-2 shellacking of Pittsburgh, coach Dan Bylsma recalled an earlier defeat the underachieving club had laid on the Penguins.
Back on Oct. 15, the Sabres’ tenacious effort during their 3-2 triumph in Pittsburgh impressed Bylsma, who saw an active, speedy team dictating the game.
Bylsma believed the Sabres would be “a real good team, real dangerous team.” Like many others, he’s stunned they’ve fallen to 14th place in the Eastern Conference.
“I still see those things in their team,” he said. “I still see skill. I still see the speed.”
Two hours later, Bylsma began seeing it up close again. The Sabres pounced on the Penguins from the get-go, scoring on their first shot just 52 seconds into a rare afternoon contest inside the First Niagara Center.
“From the standpoint of putting the work in, that was as good as a 20-man effort as we’ve had,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said.
They rarely relented after nabbing the lead, ending their four-game losing streak. The Sabres’ 25th victory, one of their most complete games this season, left many scratching their heads.
Where has the effort they showcased Sunday been all season? Why couldn’t the Sabres, who kept responding to the Penguins, hold their other leads recently?
“We bared down, didn’t give them any opportunities,” said Sabres captain Jason Pominville, who opened the scoring and had three points. “They had to work for what they got. …
“You wonder why. If we know why, we would fix it pretty easily. On the other hand, when we put the work (in) like we did tonight, we’re a pretty tough team to beat. We just got to do it consistently.”
Just like the struggling Derek Roy, who’s been enduring a career-worst slump. With two goals and an assist, the alleged No. 1 center enjoyed his first three-point night since Nov. 11. His last multipoint performance was Nov. 14, 41 games ago.
No wonder he’s the subject of trade rumors with the deadline eight days away.
But Roy, a point-per game player in the past, has three goals and six points in his last six tilts.
“I had a couple injuries that set me back a while,” Roy said about the groin and shoulder problems he battled. “I had a tough time skating. … I feel pretty good right now, skating pretty well. That’s what I got to do.”
Naturally, Ruff’s wondered where the slick Roy’s been.
“I know he’s struggled through some things, but I do, yes,” Ruff said. “It’s a question that’s hard to answer. It was there for a while. There’s been games it’s OK. That was a game he looked like the Derek Roy of old.”
Roy really looked like old self 4:16 into the game, lifting a nifty backhander from the left circle past shaky Penguins backup goalie Brent Johnson.
Unlike Thursday’s awful 7-2 loss in Philadelphia, a game in which they also led 2-0 after 20 minutes, the Sabres built on their lead, getting a Paul Gaustad score 2:52 into the second.
That landed Johnson on the bench after nine saves. Marc-Andre Fleury lost his day off.
Deryk Engelland made it 3-1 at 3:39, but the Sabres, who’ve imploded so many times this season, stymied with the Penguins.
A few minutes later, Sabres goalie Ryan Miller stoned superstar Evgeni Malkin, the NHL’s leading scorer, on a long breakaway.
The Sabres never lost the momentum again before the capacity crowd of 18,690 fans.
They replied immediately after Jordan Staal’s power-play tally 5:05 into the third period, getting a rare Drew Stafford goal 55 seconds later.
“The answer was getting a fourth one right away,” Ruff said. “Obviously, the thought starts to creep in, ‘That’s going to give them some life, and these next few shifts are important.’ We got it back in deep and we were playing in their end. I thought that was the difference.
“We just kept coming. We made some mistakes. We got some great saves out of Ryan.”
Roy tallied short-handed at 8:32, and then Tyler Ennis closed the scoring at 16:43, batting the puck to himself in front before shooting.
“A lot of things clicked,” said Miller, who made 24 saves. “We do have the skill to win hockey games. It’s been a matter of being smart and working at it and giving our skill a chance to shine. Today was a really good game for us.
“I hope we can take that as a little bit of a lesson of what we can do against a team that’s been really good all year about working really hard and kind of dominating teams the way they want to play.”