Alex Tuch has been on a tear. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres beat Capitals, finish strong at home: ‘Need to do that next season’

BUFFALO – In a season filled with disappointment, the Sabres improved in at least one critical area down the stretch, becoming a tough team to beat at home.

To wit: Thursday’s 4-2 win over the Washington Capitals in the home finale was their third straight victory at KeyBank Center and boosted their record to 9-3-0 in their last 12 outings.

Overall, the Sabres finished 21-19-1 in their building this season, the first time they finished above .500 since 2019-20.

Now, visiting KeyBank Center likely hasn’t become an intimidating experience for opponents. The Sabres struggled at home most of the season. Fans often get on them by booing and chanting, and it clearly makes them uncomfortable.

On March 30, their last loss here, Toronto beat them 3-0 as about 90 percent of the capacity crowd cheered on the Maple Leafs.

Still, the Sabres’ strong finish on home ice represents progress in another dreary season. If they can carry that into next year, it will certainly boost their playoff chances.

Four more wins this season likely would’ve secured the Sabres their first playoff berth since 2011.

“I thought we all elevated in this building and it helped us make somewhat of a playoff push at the end,” said winger Alex Tuch, whose second-period goal put the Sabres up 2-0. “… We got to make this a tough building to come in and play in.”

Coach Don Granato said “that locker room is very well aware” the Sabres must be tough at home.

“That’s an absolute positive that you finish with that record at home,” he said. “They know it. Henri Jokiharju was handed the sword for the player of the game in that locker room and he said very little, but he did reference the fact that it was big to win at home and we need to do that next season.”

On Thursday, the Sabres gave their fans a nice sendoff, never trailing before the crowd of 15,454 on “Fan Appreciation Night.”

“It’s not easy coming in and showing up for games like this,” Tuch said. “‘Fan Appreciation Night,’ so it was a little thank you to the fans for sticking with us.”

The Capitals began the night in the Eastern Conference’s second wild card spot, but their loss and Pittsburgh’s 6-5 overtime win against the Detroit Red Wings moved the Penguins into that last playoff spot.

“I guess if we can’t be in, we don’t want other teams to be in,” Tuch said.

In a low-chance game, Sabres rookie winger Zach Benson opened the scoring at 19:00, scoring his 10th goal by tipping winger Jeff Skinner’s shot past goalie Charlie Lindgren.

After Tuch scored at 12:17 – he has recorded five goals and 19 points in the last 15 games – Connor McMichael narrowed it to 2-1 at 14:16.

“They’re fighting for their life, obviously, a very experienced team, a lot of pride over there, a lot of fight over there,” Granato said. “That was a very challenging first period. I thought our guys were excellent in defending and then I thought our second period was great, but there’s no doubt we had to dial it in today. Credit to our guys, they did.

“It wasn’t until the second that we got to our game when we did. I think we just gave up two chances in the second and it was us turning pucks over in the neutral zone and both of them our doing. I liked the fight through the start, I liked the fight to finish, and the middle period was real good.”

Sabres winger Jack Quinn sealed the game 9:46 into the third period, scoring a nifty goal by moving into the slot from the right wing and beating Lindgren, who was screened by defenseman Connor Clifton.

Center Dylan Cozens scored an empty-netter, just his second goal in the last 19 games, before Tom Wilson scored a late goal for the Capitals.

The Sabres pumped 16 shots on Lindgren, while the Capitals put just 24 on goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.

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