BUFFALO – As the Sabres’ losing streak dragged on last month, winger Alex Tuch could see the struggles taking a toll on Don Granato.
In good times and bad, Granato usually maintains an even-keeled demeanor. But as the Sabres trudged through a wretched stretch in which they lost 10 of 12 games, the normally affable coach wasn’t smiling much.
So Tuch, 26, did something about it. Having developed a strong relationship with Granato – “He’s a very approachable man,” he said – he felt comfortable asking him something a bit unusual before a game March 24.
“He sees me, grumpy, and he said, ‘Hey, ready to smile today?’” Granato said last week in KeyBank Center.
Tuch’s intent was simple. He said he wanted to remind Granato “what we have the privilege of doing day in and day out.”
“Sometimes if someone says something like that, just, ‘Hey, smile,’ it reminds you like, ‘Enjoy it, take a deep breath. You’re in the NHL. You’re doing the one job that you love in this world,’” said Tuch, who acknowledged he has recently told himself the same thing.
Tuch’s words loosened Granato up – “I did smile right after the comment,” he said – and illustrated to his coach that after returning early from an injury, he felt like himself again.
“I knew like, this guy’s going to play tonight, he’s going to be ready to go because he feels good enough to almost joke around,” Granato said. “You can’t joke around when you’re concerned with am I going to get my job done?”
Tuch got his job done that night, ending a four-game goal drought by scoring twice and assisting on another in a 5-4 win over the New Jersey Devils. The much-needed victory ignited the Sabres, who have won six of their last eight outings entering tonight’s road contest against the New York Rangers.
For the first time since 2012, the Sabres are alive for a playoff spot during the final week of the season. With four games left, the odds are extremely low – as of Sunday, just 1.5 percent, according to sportsclubstats.com – they will make it and end an 11-year drought.
Yes, they’re on life support. They basically need to win out and get a lot of help. Still, simply staying in the race represents progress.
Tuch’s presence during his first full season in Buffalo – on and off the ice – has helped transform the Sabres. If his words can impact the coach, they almost certainly resonate with his teammates.
This season has been memorable for Tuch, who grew up a rabid Sabres fan in Baldwinsville. The team has grown close while making significant strides and having its best campaign in more than a decade.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Tuch, who arrived early last season in the blockbuster Jack Eichel trade with the Vegas Golden Knights. “I mean, we have a really young team, we have a fun team. We have a team that loves coming to the rink, loves being together, going to dinners on the road. It’s based off of that. The on-ice stuff is a bonus at this point.
“Coming in and being in a work environment that you love so much and having co-workers that you have so much fun with, it doesn’t turn into a job. It’s not a job anymore. You just come in living your best life, honestly.”
The 6-foot-4, 219-pound Tuch has enjoyed a career-best season, recording 35 goals, 39 assists for 74 points in 70 games. He had never surpassed 20 goals, 32 assists or 52 points in a campaign.
If a lower-body injury hadn’t sidelined him eight contests, he might’ve cracked the 40-goal mark.
After spending four seasons in a supporting role in Vegas and arriving in Buffalo during his recovery from shoulder surgery, he was expected to showcase growth this season.
Sure enough, Tuch has seized his career-changing opportunity.
“There was no choice he was going to seize it because we were going to keep giving him opportunity and pushing him,” Granato said. “We push him hard. I talk to him a lot about, ‘As good as you think you are, you’re wrong, you’re better. We need to get you there and it’s time.’
“So when I’m giving him more opportunity and more ice time, I’m also saying, ‘You need to get a job done here, you need to elevate here, because I’m not going to get off your back until you do.’”
Tuch has played right wing nearly all season with center Tage Thompson and Jeff Skinner on one of the NHL’s most lethal lines. His average ice time per game, 19 minutes, 11 seconds, is 46 seconds higher than last season. In Vegas, he never surpassed the 17-minute mark.
“The opportunity has really presented itself, I think, (that) hasn’t in the past,” Tuch said. “So I’ve just tried to make the most of the opportunity. I’ve been given a lot of trust, I think, by the coaching staff and by the guys making the decisions. So it’s been really good. I’ve tried to embrace it as much as possible. I’ve tried to enjoy it and, yeah, it just sometimes happens and you got to take full advantage of it, and if you do, sometimes it works out.”