Rookie Zach Benson scores an empty-net goal Thursday. ©2024, Michleine Veluvolu

UPL stars as Sabres blank Islanders, move toward playoff spot

BUFFALO – OK, now goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and the surging Sabres are making things really interesting.

Thursday’s 4-0 win over the New York Islanders moved them to within three points of the Isles, who own the Eastern Conference’s second wild card spot.

Who would’ve thought last week, when the Sabres dealt leading scorer Casey Mittelstadt and captain Kyle Okposo during their three-game losing streak, they’d suddenly vault into the thick of the playoff chase?

They’re 3-0-0 since last Friday’s trade deadline. It took five months and nearly 70 games, but they’re looking more like the potent, well-rounded team many envisioned they could be this season.

Clearly, they’re a looser team than earlier this season or even barely a week ago.

“I feel like as a group we say there’s nothing to lose now,” said Luukkonen, who made 21 saves to record his fifth shutout this season, the NHL’s second-highest total. “It’s not like at the start of the year if you make mistakes. Now, it’s do or die, I guess. There’s no reason to kind of back down. … We’ve been just playing fearlessly, just really, really confident.”

Center Dylan Cozens, whose second-period goal put the Sabres up 2-0, said “our belief is higher than ever right now.”

“I think I said a month ago, maybe weeks ago, that we still believe in this room that we can do it, and that’s what we’re doing right now,” he said.

Last season, the Sabres, who have 15 games left, went on a late charge and fell one win short of the playoffs.

This year, they still have their work cut out for them if they want to end their NHL-record 12-year playoff drought. The teams they’re directly behind – the Islanders, Detroit Red Wings and Washington Capitals – all have games in hand.

On Saturday, the Sabres begin a five-game road trip in Detroit – all the other games are against Western Conference opponents – that could make or break their season. The Red Wings’ shocking seven-game losing streak – on Tuesday, the Sabres pummeled them 7-3 – has certainly helped their playoff push.

But right now, the Sabres, have a lot of things going for them.

They’re scoring more goals – 14 in their last three outings – and getting more contributors. Rookie winger Zach Benson scored twice Thursday before the crowd of 15,637 in KeyBank Center, including an empty-netter, and has registered three goals and five points in the last two contests.

Winger Victor Olofsson opened the scoring 4:28 into the second period, recording his first power-play goal this season. Olofsson, a regular scratch since late December, returned to the lineup last week when Mittelstadt left. Now, he’s scored twice in five games.

On Tuesday, he beat goalie Ilya Sorokin from below the right circle, a spot he has often utilized his lethal shot to score throughout his career.

“It was really nice to see Victor and that was an elite goal against a goaltender that was playing extremely well,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “… He’s stayed ready for an opportunity when he’s been denied opportunity, hasn’t had opportunity. I have complete confidence in him because I watched him prepare and prepare and prepare.

“So when you see him score a goal like that and it’s such a big goal for our team, you can be nothing but happy for the guy.”

The Sabres, of course, also possess Luukkonen, who began the season as their second or third option behind rookie Devon Levi and Eric Comrie.

A strong argument can be made Luukkonen has been the NHL’s MVP since the beginning of January.

“He’s been incredible,” Cozens said. “You got so much confidence in him back there. We know he’s going to make big saves. He’s been arguably the best goalie in the league for the last while. He’s just been outstanding back there for us.”

The Sabres are also playing a much tighter, more mature game. It took the Islanders just over the 10 minutes to record their first shot on Luukkonen. The Sabres, meanwhile, kept peppering Sorokin and held a 13-5 shot advantage after the scoreless first period.

Instead of getting frustrated, they simply plowed ahead and in the second period, they scored three times.

Against the Islanders, a team that can grab a lead and take the air out of a game, that first goal is critical.

“We’re starting to find our game, our full 60,” Cozens said. “And, I think, we have confidence. We know we can beat any team. And we know that every game matters a lot right now. And we’re kind of buckling down and doing whatever it takes.”

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