BUFFALO – As the Sabres struggled out of the gate, they rarely played to their identity – a fast, relentless attack – and dropped three of their first four games.
Another loss would’ve moved their underwhelming start into the concerning category. More than a week into the season, they hadn’t had a signature effort.
Well, they finally showcased what makes them so dangerous in Saturday’s 3-1 win over the New York Islanders, a game not as close as the score might indicate.
The aggressive Sabres thumped the Islanders before a noisy crowd of 16,179 fans in KeyBank Center, outshooting them 43-25.
It took time. The Sabres had nearly 30 shots on goal when winger Jeff Skinner opened the scoring late in the second period.
Still, they never let any frustration overwhelm them.
“The persistence is, I think, a credit to the entire group,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I say and I stand up here a lot and I back our guys a lot because they’re determined. They care. We bring things to their attention and they work to do it. They knew tonight they needed to have a better game and they knew exactly how they could have a better game, and they stayed on it the whole way.
“The payoff didn’t come until late, but they stayed on it. That’s a great indicator of the determination they have.”
To Granato, the work the Sabres put in to get to their identity “was as big as the win.”
“We’ve struggled to get to our identity early in the year here,” he said. “We were willing to work but we didn’t work the right way.”
The Sabres’ work allowed goalie Eric Comrie to face just seven shots in the opening period and settle into his first start this season.
“The guys put forth one heck of an effort tonight,” said Comrie, who had a few point-blank saves among his 24 stops. “… They were absolutely phenomenal. They were sharp right from the get-go. I mean, it was fun to watch my D-corps work out there. They were boxing guys out, blocking shots, and everything they could to make it easy for myself.
“When you see guys do that in front of you, you just want to pay back the effort and I had so much fun doing it.”
New forwards lines buoyed that effort.
The trio of Skinner, center Tage Thompson and Alex Tuch has established itself as one of the NHL’s best. Still, Granato needed to make changes, and moving center Casey Mittelstadt up between Skinner and Thompson made sense.
When Thompson was battling an injury late last season and shifted to right wing on another line, Mittelstadt earned a promotion between the top wingers.
Thompson, meanwhile, centered Jordan Greenway and Dylan Cozens, who scored at the net in the third period to make it 3-0.
“We got a pretty deep lineup,” Mittelstadt said. “At the same time, guys can kind of play with anyone, and I feel like most guys are comfortable doing that. I think that’s one of the beauties of our team. Wherever you’re going to play you’re going to play with good players.”
Mittelstadt created Skinner’s goal by moving down the slot and adroitly feeding him in the right circle for a one-timer. He also earned the primary assist on defenseman Mattias Samuelsson’s goal after taking a hit near the net and spotting him in the right circle.
“Mittsy, I think it’s underrated, his puck-handling ability,” Samuelsson said. “Sometimes it seems like he has the puck on a string and you see he just spins off the defender there, still has it, make a nice pass. … The vision, the awareness, the ability to hold onto the puck, he’s pretty special with the puck.”
Notes: Granato said Comrie looked “dialed in” in his first start since a preseason nod Sept. 28. “He made some saves where if you watched them on video, they were a lot more difficult than they appeared,” he said. “But he made them look easy with some traffic around him.” … Defenseman Noah Dobson broke up Comrie’s shutout bid 18:39 into the third period. … Tuch fought Adam Pelech in the second period after the defenseman tried to knee Skinner. “Tucher jumping in there in defense of Skinny and seeing something he didn’t like was awesome,” Granato said. “Again, it shows that our guys were very, very dialed in tonight.” … Thompson registered 10 shots on goal and 14 attempts. After a late attempt was blocked, he broke his stick over his thigh. … The Sabres killed three penalties Saturday and have killed 18 of 19 this season. … The Sabres have today off. They close their four-game home stand Monday against the Montreal Canadiens.