Kyle Okposo believes the Sabres have forged an identity. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

After terrific road trip, Sabres ready for more meaningful games in February

BUFFALO – Following their most successful and significant road trip in years, the Sabres can finally catch their breath and recharge.

Saturday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild ended a grueling stretch of 13 games in 22 days in which the Sabres compiled a terrific 7-4-2 mark. They grew stronger and stronger as the month progressed, defeating the Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets last week before falling in Minnesota.

Now, having moved within one point of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, the Sabres can rest a bit and enjoy some practice time.

They don’t play again until Wednesday against the Carolina Hurricanes, their final game before the NHL All-Star break and their bye week. They’ll have a 10-day break and resume the season Feb. 11 versus the Calgary Flames.

After earning seven out of a possible eight points on their trip, for the first time in more than a decade, the Sabres will be playing truly meaningful games in February.

“We just respect whatever team we’re playing, but we don’t fear them,” defenseman Mattias Samuelsson said of the identity the Sabres have forged. “I think we go into these buildings and we know we can win, and we just try to play our game. … We have confidence in this group and play a fast, high-skilled game, and on top of the other team the whole time.

“Sometimes we can be a lot to handle. So I think that road trip, we were buzzing there.”

That identity, captain Kyle Okposo said, has taken time to establish this season.

“But I think that we have,” he said in KeyBank Center. “And I think that we’re really solid in our game from game to game and we know the way that we have to play, and we’re comfortable in it. We’re comfortable with playing a tight-checking team. We’re comfortable playing a wide-open game. That’s something that it’s taken maybe a little bit longer than I thought it would coming into this year.

“But I think that that for me has been the biggest strength of our team, that we know who we are and we’re not scared to play our game against anybody.”

Coach Don Granato said the Sabres have evolved as the schedule has progressed and they’ve had opportunities to measure themselves against their opponents.

“It’s almost like you’ve got to go through the league and gauge all of your competitors,” he said. “So we go on the road and we see Winnipeg … and Dallas and it gives your guys a chance to say, ‘OK, are we willing to raise the bar to this level? Can we raise the bar to this level?’

“Our guys, they are taking in all of that information game after game after game and they know the identity that we have and we want and they know our strengths and maybe some of our weaknesses. And they’re calibrating. They’re looking at it and saying, ‘Hey, let’s rise to this.’”

The Sabres’ ability to field a full lineup most nights has boosted the development process and helped them find an identity as they fight for their first playoff berth since 2011. Since a run of injuries on defense early in the season, they’ve remained remarkably healthy, especially up front.

That stability, Granato said, has been critical.

“So now we’re healthier, to the point that we can engage in that process,” he said.

Rest has also buoyed the Sabres’ recent success. They did not practice during their four-game road trip. On Monday in LECOM Harborcenter, they practiced for the first time since Jan. 15 and just the third time since Jan. 9.

“I love practice,” Granato said. “I think all coaches do. But you match that against we had 12 games in 20 days and the first four games of that gave me enough of the picture that we’re a young team and we’re learning how to play more efficient, which … can be more effective in performance. Experienced players … tend to know how to play more efficient. I felt we are a much better team fresh, we’re fast team, we’re quick, we have skill, and that deteriorates extremely fast upon fatigue.”

So Granato he said he decided “rest was way more beneficial” during such a demanding stretch.

“Then you supplement what you would do in practice through other means meetings, video,” he said. “And so I was very, very comfortable in the sense that it was the right thing to do and we would see better performance. Not saying wins, but I clearly knew we’d see better performance.”

Okposo, 34, said the Sabres “reacted appropriately” to having no practice time.

“I was totally fine with it,” the veteran said. “But I was really impressed with how we handled it as a group because we’re such a young team and everybody took it in stride. I know when you’re younger, sometimes you can feel like, ‘Oh, my hands aren’t going to be good enough if I’m not skating a lot,’ and it can get in your head that way. But we didn’t do that as a group.”

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