Buffalo captain Kyle Okposo (21) and his teammates celebrate his third-period goal Saturday. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres illustrate growth by annihilating Golden Knights: ‘A mature response’

BUFFALO – In the not-so-distant past, if the Sabres had blown a two-goal lead in a matter of minutes like they did Saturday, they likely would’ve lost.

So their 7-2 dismantling of the Vegas Golden Knights before a noisy crowd of 16,693 fans in KeyBank Center represents growth.

Coach Don Granato has recently been saying the Sabres have matured and become better equipped to handle adversity. Saturday’s triumph over the defending Stanley Cup champion and Thursday’s 3-2 overtime road victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning certainly illustrates that.

Psyche-wise, they’re in a much better place than early in the winter. Standings-wise, they’ve essentially made up no ground while winning seven of their last 10 games.

They’re 10 points out of the Eastern Conference’s second wild card spot.

“I’ve spoken of it many times, our psyche’s in a much better place the last month or so and you have a two-goal lead, everybody says, ‘You blow it,’ because it’s now 2-2,” Granato said. “… That challenges your psyche right there, especially a very capable team that you’re playing against.

“We had to get the momentum back, and I thought all four lines did it. I thought all six defensemen did it.”

The Sabres seized the momentum again after goals by Vegas’ Brandon Brisson and William Karlsson in a span of 2:42 early in the second period tied the contest.

It took a little time, but winger Zemgus Girgensons restored the Sabres’ lead at 14:46. Then they throttled Vegas in the third period.

Captain Kyle Okposo and defenseman Owen Power scored early. Center Casey Mittelstadt’s power-play goal and center Dylan Cozens’ second short-handed goal of the night secured the Sabres’ 14th home win this season.

Okposo said the Sabres showcased “a mature response.” In jumping out to a lead – winger Jeff Skinner scored 1:55 into the game and Cozens followed early in the second period – Okposo said they “saw the game plan was working for us.”

“So there wasn’t need to panic,” he said. “… There was nothing wrong with how we were playing and we just wanted to make sure we continued that.”

The Sabres continued playing with pace, which Granato said means they possess confidence.

“When we’re tight, we don’t have it,” he said. “You’re usually tight when you’re not confident or you don’t have that free confidence. So we wanted to play with pace and I thought we’ve been doing it better recently.”

Goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has started 18 of the last 20 games, a dizzying stretch in which he has emerged as the Sabres’ undisputed No. 1 goalie.

After a 22-save outing Saturday in his eighth consecutive nod, he’s due for a some well-deserved rest soon. It could come tonight when the Sabres host the Winnipeg Jets.

These days, of course, goalies rarely play on consecutive days. The position’s just too demanding.

Still, on Saturday morning, Granato wouldn’t rule out Luukkonen playing again tonight. The Finn hardly had a heavy workload. The Sabres don’t have to travel.

“We’ll wait and see how tonight goes, take that information, make a decision based on that,” Granato said after the morning skate. “So not committing to anything for tomorrow night yet in regard. We’ll see what we feel like after the game and even into tomorrow.”

Backup goalie Eric Comrie has started two times against Winnipeg, his former team, in his career, compiling a 1-1-0 record with a 2.52 goals-against average and an .872 save percentage.

He stopped 15 shots Nov. 17 in the Sabres’ 3-2 loss in Winnipeg. He has played just four NHL games since then, his last coming Feb. 15 when Luukkonen sat out a game with a lower-body injury.

Notes: The Sabres scratched defenseman Erik Johnson, who’s recovering from illness, according to the team. Johnson, 35, is a prime candidate to be dealt before Friday’s trade deadline. … Skinner’s goal was his team-leading 20th. It marked the 10th time in his 14-year career he has scored at least 20 goals. … Skinner, Power each recorded three points. Mittelstadt and winger Eric Robinson each had two points. … Former Sabres captain Jack Eichel, who’s in his third season with Vegas, missed his 19th straight game with a knee injury. Eichel has started full-contact practices.

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