PITTSBURGH – You have to go back nine years to find the last time the Buffalo Sabres ranked among the NHL’s heavyweights like they do right now.
The upstart Sabres haven’t roared out of the gate this fast since the 2009-10 season, when they also earned 26 points in their first 20 outings, their second-best 20-game start of the overtime era.
Entering tonight’s tilt against the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena, the Sabres are enjoying their first five-game winning streak since March 2012.
They haven’t won six straight games since Dec. 27, 2009 to Jan. 8, 2010.
Incredibly, the NHL’s worst team a year ago ranked sixth overall and third in the ultra-competitive Atlantic Division as of Sunday afternoon.
The 12-6-2 Sabres have quickly morphed into the league’s biggest surprise. They won their 12th game last season on Jan. 22, their 47th contest.
Yes, it’s still early. But the Sabres haven’t slowed down. Their ability to find a way to triumph is quickly becoming remarkable. They’re a force to be reckoned with.
On Saturday, they zoomed back from an early 2-0 deficit to beat the Minnesota Wild 3-2, getting the late winner after tying it in the third period. Last season, the Wild throttled the Sabres 6-2 on Jan. 4 at home after opening up a 6-0 lead.
“Going down two, you’re kind of thinking, ‘Man is this going to happen again?’” Sabres winger Jason Pominville, who scored Saturday’s winner with 1:30 left, told reporters in Minnesota. “But I think it goes to show we have a different group and different mindset and different attitude. We stuck with it, found a way.
“It just shows a lot about our group. We had a tough, tough schedule.”
The Sabres’ hectic schedule only enhances the victory. On Friday night, they rallied to beat the Winnipeg Jets, the NHL’s best home team, 3-2 in a shootout after tying it in the third period.
Then they went through customs, flew to Minnesota and faced a 26-point team in an afternoon start.
“It just showed the character of this team, the fight and the battle,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said.
The Sabres started their run Nov. 8 in Montreal, erasing a late deficit to beat the Canadiens 6-5 in overtime.
On Nov. 10, the Sabres rallied from two goals in the final 2:27 to defeat the Vancouver Canucks 4-3 in overtime. On Tuesday, they beat the Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1.
So far, the Sabres are 4-6-1 when trailing after two periods. Only the Calgary Flames, who are 6-7-1, have earned more points.
Many observers thought the Sabres would improve this season following a wretched 62-point campaign. Still, what they’ve accomplished so far is remarkable.
Sure, there will be struggles ahead. But the Sabres are clearly far ahead of schedule.
“I give the players credit, it’s all them,” Housley said. “They’re doing the work and it started in training camp (with) our conditioning, our checking details.”
Offensively, Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, 18, believes he had the best game of his short NHL career on Saturday.
“Defensively, I can be better,” Dahlin said after recording a goal and an assist.
Some miscommunication between Dahlin and Zach Bogosian – the rookie went to the bench instead of grabbing his new partner’s pass – created Minnesota’s first goal.
“It was some small details, but overall it was a great game for me, great game for this team,” Dahlin said. “It’s so easy on this team, we have a great feeling. Yeah, I love to play on this team.”
The first overall pick more than made up for his miscue. First, he slickly created Jake McCabe’s goal, feeding the defenseman from the right circle in close.
“Oh my God,” Pominville said of the pass. “I mean, his first play there.”
Dahlin tied the game late, pinching in to score his second NHL goal.
“He made some incredible plays, even coming out of our end,” Housley said.
But Housley promoted Pominville, a former Wild star, to the top line again late Saturday.
“Just looking for a spark,” Housley said. “Pommer’s minutes were a little bit low, so we got him up there with Jack. It’s just funny how things work out.”
The late goal was Pominville’s eighth this season. Of course, Pominville, 35, cooled off after leaving Eichel’s side.
Still, having compiled 17 points in 20 appearances, he’s on a 33-goal, 70-point pace over an 82-game campaign.
“Everyone’s just willing to play wherever, that’s what’s fun about the group,” Pominville said. “We’re just not concerned about ice time.”
Notes: At 7-8-3, the Penguins rank last in the Metropolitan Division. … Penguins Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby is day-to-day with an upper-body injury and possibly won’t play tonight. … The Sabres are 6-0-2 in one-goal games this season. … The Sabres had Sunday off.