Erik Johnson is a mainstay on the penalty kill. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres notes: Maturity, newcomer Erik Johnson boost Buffalo’s penalty killing

BUFFALO – Through nine games, the Sabres have mostly utilized the same penalty killers as last season, with one exception. Newcomer Erik Johnson usually jumps over the boards first with defenseman Mattias Samuelsson, offering a stabilizing veteran presence.

So far, Johnson has helped, as the Sabres have killed 89.2 percent of their penalties, which ranked sixth in the NHL entering Monday’s games. Last season, they killed just 73 percent of their penalties, which ranked 28th overall.

While Johnson, 35, has impacted the penalty killing as the Sabres had hoped, he’s just one of about 10 players coach Don Granato uses in his rotation.

Most of the improvement has come from within. The struggles players endured last season has helped them mature.

“It’s evident to see the structure that’s there by virtue of going through some unfortunate challenges last year with the guys who have returned,” Granato said after the Sabres killed all six power plays in Sunday afternoon’s 4-0 win over the Colorado Avalanche. “Samuelsson was, is a key component. You add Erik Johnson and that is huge to add.

“But the guys who were on it last year, (Alex) Tuch and (Tage) Thompson, have hindsight that they’ve never had and that helped us coaching going into the year. They’re better. They’re just better because of what they’ve gone through and they’re playing much better as a group.”

After allowing a power-play goal opening night, the Sabres’ units got hot, killing 15 straight penalties over the next four games.

Those kills, of course, generate momentum and instill confidence.

“It’s been a real bright spot for us and I think it gives not only your kill confidence, it gives the other guys, ‘Hey, OK, they’re going to kill this off, we’re going to go over the boards and score,’” said Johnson, who spent 13 seasons with the Avalanche before signing with Buffalo.

On Sunday in KeyBank Center, the Sabres limited what Johnson called a “lethal” Colorado power play – “It’s kind of pick your poison,” he said – to just seven shots in 10:06 on the man advantage.

“They got their looks, don’t get me wrong, but they got their first opportunities and the second and thirds we kind of swept away or got down the rink,” Johnson said. “So I think for us, it was how our PK’s been all year. It’s been a feather in our cap. It’s been really good for us.”

The Sabres, who had Monday off, have found a groove offensively in their last three games, registering 14 goals. In their first six outings, they scored just 13 times.

Granato attributes some of their early goal-scoring struggles to the focus they’ve put on fixing problems that plagued them last season.

For example, while the Sabres scored 293 goals last year, a gaudy number that ranked third overall, they allowed 297, the league’s seventh-highest total.

“Our attention has been diverted to probably last season and some of the things we perceive that might have been our doom and buttoning up in certain areas,” he said. “And when your intention goes to that with the intensity that we’ve had to do that, you can lose yourself and what you’re actually good at.

“But that push has been good. I think our guys have taken those things to heart and will continue to develop in the areas that we need to as we’ve laid it out, and I think we’re starting to get a little bit more comfortable with that where we can now move back to our game. But … we need to be a high-tempo team and we just haven’t been able to do that lately.”

Goalie Devin Cooley, who backed up Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen on Sunday before being sent back to the Rochester Americans, had the polarizing “Slug” logo the Sabres wore from 2006 to 2010 painted on the side of his mask.

“You know what’s funny? I didn’t know it was going to be so controversial,” Cooley said following Saturday’s practice. “So, I mean, originally I wanted that to be a little bit smaller like right on the jaw. … But they went with a big slug logo, and I was looking on social media, everyone’s like, ‘Oh, I hate it! I love it! Long live the Slug!’ So I thought that was funny.”

Cooley also has the Sabres’ current logo prominently displayed at the top of his mask.

The Sabres scratched winger Victor Olofsson on Sunday for the third time this season. Tyson Jost, who began his career with Colorado, replaced him.

Update: The Sabres this morning recalled forward Brandon Biro from the Rochester Americans.

Biro, 25, has scored two goals and six points in five games this season. He played one game for the Sabres in 2021-22.

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