BUFFALO – Right away, five months ago, the Sabres passed the eye test. Following two wretched seasons, the rebuilt club immediately looked like, well, a real team again.
While this campaign has still been rough – they rank seventh in the Atlantic Division and 26th overall – the Sabres believe they’ve started creating a strong identity they can carry into the future.
The new-look team (27-33-9) has morphed back into a competitive outfit in today’s ultra-tight NHL by showcasing the same intense style most contests.
The Sabres like to play an aggressive, fast and pressuring game that’s “hard to play against,” coach Dan Bylsma said Friday.
“One (they’ve) shown they’re going to play 60 minutes, hell or high water,” he said. “That’s how we’ve played pretty well all year long.”
Opponents already understand what type of game they’ll have against the Sabres, Bylsma and winger Marcus Foligno said.
“We’ve heard some other teams (say) that we’re quick and we’re aggressive,” Foligno said. “We don’t back down. We get down in a game and we keep coming. That’s good to have. The tenacious part of the game is there for us. We don’t quit.”
The Sabres, who are still prone to slow starts, have won 10 games in which they were tied or trailing after two periods.
Incredibly, the Sabres have 22 one-goal losses – 52.4 percent of their defeats – including Thursday’s 3-2 setback in Montreal, a game Foligno believes they played with the proper tenacity.
“That’s how you have to play the game,” he said. “You have to respect it.”
Thirteen games are left this season, starting with this afternoon’s tilt against the Carolina Hurricanes inside the First Niagara Center. The final stretch, Bylsma said, is about further forging their newfound identity.
“One hundred percent,” he said. “That’s one of our goals is to establish that and cement how we play, the foundation of our team and how we play. That’s something we’re doing night in and night out.”
Even with zero possibility of a playoff berth for the fifth straight season, the Sabres haven’t lost their focus, defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo said.
“The focus in our room is still progression,” he said. “Everyone’s still trying to get better. Everyone’s still wants to win. You can tell by the way we’re playing. We’re competing every night. We’re trying to eliminate that attitude of being comfortable.”
Here are some things to watch for over the final 28 days of the season:
The re-emergence of defenseman Zach Bogosian
In recent outings, Bogosian, 25, has performed like his old self, aggressively moving the puck all over the ice and banging bodies.
“His skating, physical-wise, without a question it’s been more assertive, more aggressive,” Bylsma said. “(He’s) used his skating, been more physical.”
Bylsma has upped Bogosian’s ice time, skating him at least 23 minutes in five of the last six games.
After suffering a lower-body injury just days into training camp and missing the first 17 games, Bogosian, perhaps with the injury on his mind, played tentatively.
Bylsma said the Massena native was more controlled and not overextending himself then. These days, Bogosian’s “long gone” from that.
“I don’t know if it’s his injury or the beard that makes him play that way,” Bylsma joked about Bogosian’s shaggy growth.
Reliance on youngsters
If Reinhart scores one more, the Sabres will have two 20-goal rookies for the first time since 1974-75, when Danny Gare and Peter McNab hit the mark.
“We lean a lot on our young players, and that’s a lot for them to carry, and that’s a learning experience for them, too, on how to carry a bigger role, how to be responsible and obviously want to be a big part of this team,” Colaiacovo said.
Clearly, some established talent that has underachieved all season needs to start contributing again. Winger Matt Moulson only has five goals and has scored just once since Nov. 1. Winger Zemgus Girgensons also has five goals. It was assumed both would score 20 or so.