Tage Thompson and Bowen Byram celebrate a goal Tuesday. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu

Bowen Byram, surging Sabres destroy Red Wings, move closer to playoff spot

BUFFALO – Imagine, if you will, a Sabres team capable of locking down defensively like it has over the past 10 weeks and possessing the offensive firepower of last season.

Since Jan. 1, thanks largely to the emergence of goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, the Sabres have boasted the NHL’s third-stingiest defense.

Still, as they’ve focused on different areas of their game and matured this season, their offense has suffered. The fast pace they displayed a year ago has often disappeared.

So, how dangerous could they be down the stretch if they consistently showcase elements of both styles?

Well, if they replicate efforts like Tuesday’s 7-3 thumping of the Detroit Red Wings, the surging Sabres can be a force.

The Sabres, essentially given up for dead last week, have crept into the playoff chase by winning two straight games since Friday’s trade deadline. In their last 11 games, they’re 7-3-1.

“I’ve mentioned it since the New Year, how much better this group is from a psychological standpoint and moving forward day by day, progressing,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “That’s the big one for me. I see it because I’m the one asking them and demanding – and then you see it in film, you see it every night when you play.

“Different things are getting better, and the hope is that collectively they come together sooner than later.”

It certainly came together Tuesday before the crowd of 15,529 fans in KeyBank Center The Sabres throttled their reeling opponent early, scoring 1:07 into the game. They led 4-1 after one period and 6-1 9:05 into the second.

“Tonight, we had all 20 guys going,” said Sabres winger Alex Tuch, who opened the scoring.

Right now, they have 67 points, just five behind the New York Islanders, Thursday’s opponent at home, for the Eastern Conference’s final wild card spot.

The Sabres have two more meetings with Detroit and the Washington Capitals, the two teams between them and the Islanders.

Suddenly, the Sabres, who traded captain Kyle Okposo and leading scorer Casey Mittelstadt last week, have some life.

Bowen Byram, the top-pair defenseman they acquired in exchange for Mittelstadt, has buoyed them.

Byram, 22, scored twice Tuesday and has compiled three goals and four points in his first three games.

“Losing a guy like Mittsy is never easy,” Tuch said. “… But the return that we got, he’s been instrumental in our latest successes.”

They’ve thrown Byram headfirst into the fray, skating him big minutes alongside Rasmus Dahlin. The newcomer’s grateful for the ice time.

“Whenever you kind of just try to dip your toe in the water, it usually ends up coming back and hitting you in the face,” Byram said. “So super happy so far with how things have went.”

Granato said Byram’s aggressive style “fits it incredibly well” with how the Sabres like to play

“It’s what we want, it helps Dahlin, it helps push people back on the other team,” he said. “Lots of stress, which carries over even to the next shift, which you saw tonight at times. His ability to play that dynamic, up-tempo style that we want and defend as well as we’re aspiring to get to – yeah, it’s a big boost.”

As they’ve evolved throughout the season, Granato has stressed the slick style would return, something he repeated Tuesday.

“I’ve mentioned it many times to this group, ‘That stuff’s gonna come back, it’s gonna come back,’” he said. “There’s some things that we’ve worked on and turned our attention to that need to become second nature, and as they’ve become second nature and you’re not turning conscious thought to some of those things – what I’m speaking of primarily is defending and defending the right way – and you can put that in the subconscious level and you develop that skill, the other stuff tends to come back.

“It’s still a work in progress, I’ll tell you that. But tonight was a good night.”

Wingers Zach Benson, JJ Peterka and Jeff Skinner and defenseman Connor Clifton scored the Sabres’ other goals. Benson had a career-high three points. Luukkonen made 21 saves.

The Red Wings have been outscored 32-11 during their six-game losing streak.

After Skinner made it 4-1 15:09 into the first period, the Red Wings yanked goalie Alex Lyon. James Reimer replaced him.

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