DENVER – If you want to rate the signature win for this Buffalo Sabers season, the choice should be easy.
Playing short-handed with only five defenseman on the road against the defending Stanley Cup champions, you have to give the Sabers full marks for their 4-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche Thursday night in Ball Arena.
Buffalo’s Owen Power – who leads NHL rookies in ice time at 23 minutes, 37 seconds per game – was a late scratch due to what a team official described as a lower-body tweak suffered just before warmup. Already missing Henri Jokiharju, Ilya Lyubushkin and Jacob Bryson, the Sabers were left with no choice but to play with the only five players on ‘D’ and try to spread the minutes around.
“He was in no spot to play, unfortunately,” coach Don Granato said of Power. “And we had no options.”
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“He was trying everything he had. So unfortunate,” added Rasmus Dahlin. “He really wanted to play this game but the doctor said he just couldn’t.”
Dahlin, Mattias Samuelsson, Kale Clague, Casey Fitzgerald and Lawrence Pilut performed admirably on the opener of a three-game road trip in support of the marquee NHL performance by Buffalo goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. Samuelsson played a game- and career high 31:31, Dahlin clocked in at 28:37 and Clague was at 23:34. Samuelsson and Dahlin each had four blocked shots as the Sabers piled up 23.
“I’m a little tired,” Samuelsson said with a pained smile. “Five ‘D’ is not easy anywhere and especially at altitude. I thought all five guys stepped up and played well so we got it done.”
“We sacrificed for each other,” Dahlin said. “I’m very happy about this game and it’s a great start to a road trip.”
The Sabers had lost eight straight to the Avalanche in regulation and their last victory in the series had been a 4-2 win here on Dec. 5, 2017. The win got the Sabers back to a .500 points percentage at 14-14-2 and improved them to 7-3-2 since ending their eight-game losing streak last month in Montreal. Colorado is 15-11-2 and sitting in the last Western Conference playoff spot.
The Sabers got a goal from Tage Thompson just 54 seconds into the game and made it 2-0 on Alex Tuch’s power-play goal at 7:08 of the first. Luukkonen made 39 saves and it was a high-stress performance as Colorado outshot the Sabres, 41-21 – and 17-1 in the third period.
“I think it was clear from the start it’s gonna be a pretty hard game,” Luukkonen said. “But we did a good job of keeping them outside and boxing them out. There’s a lot of shots there, but I think we played smart.”
“‘Upie’ looked confident all the way through,” Granato said. “It was as if he wanted pucks to come to him.”
Luukkonen stayed square to shooters, swallowed rebounds and did an excellent job tracking pucks through the Buffalo zone all night. Especially with the thin defense corps, the Sabers’ forwards were also stellar coming back into their zone and helping to keep Colorado forwards at bay.
There was a surprising participant at the Buffalo Sabres’ morning skate Thursday. One day shy of a month after suffering a knee injury on a goalmouth collision during a loss in Ottawa, goaltender Eric Comrie was back on the ice to give a kick-start to his path back to the lineup.
“Just keeping the shifts short,” Samuelsson said of the key to the night. “I probably had a couple shifts there around 10-15 seconds. Just stay simple. If you’re skating up and trying to join the rush every play, you’re gonna gas yourself out. So we just tried to move it to the forwards and let them do their job.”
Bryson and Lyubushkin are both on the trip and Lyubushkin took the morning skate, but neither was able to play. Lyubushkin remains on injured reserve while the Sabers are hopeful Bryson can return to the lineup Saturday in Arizona. Jokiharju, also on IR with a lower-body injury, is not on the trip.
The Avalanche have struggled with injuries of their own and played this one without superstar center Nathan MacKinnon, who burned Buffalo for five points Dec. 1 in KeyBank Center but has been out the last two weeks with an upper-body injury.
“You want to win every game but we’re on the road in their place,” Luukkonen said. “Two games left on this road trip. Starting it like this against this team is a really good thing.”
Here are some other observations on a wild day and night in Denver:
1. Getting enough offense
Even without MacKinnon, the Avs still had several of their Stanley Cup veterans in their lineup and were likely looking to get a quick jump in the game. It didn’t happen as the Sabers took the lead for keeps on Thompson’s spectacular individual effort to deke past Colorado goalie Alexandar Georgiev. It was Thompson’s 24th goal of the season.
Tage Thompson gives Geogiev the okie-doke for the 1-0 lead #LetsGoBuffalo #GoAvsGo pic.twitter.com/YjPIilX4sF
— Buffalo Hockey moments (@SabresPlays) December 16, 2022
Thompson added an assist to improve his total for the season to 46 points. Only three Sabers have had more points through 30 games — Pat LaFontaine in 1991-92 and 1992-93, Alexander Mogilny in 1992-93 and Gilbert Perreault in 1974-75. Thompson’s 24th goal tied Thomas Vanek (2008-09) for the third-most in club annals through their first 30 games, behind only Mogilny (30 in 1992-93) and LaFontaine (29 in 1991-92).
Tuch’s goal was his 15th of the season and Dahlin got No. 10 at 17:11 of the second period to make it 3-0. He took a Tyson Jost feed and burned Georgiev on a wrist shot for his 10th goal of the season, giving the Sabers an NHL-high six scorers in double figures.
“The last four games I’ve been shooting from the exact same spot,” Dahlin said. “I aimed on the left side as hard as I could and I was very happy it went in. It was close to post-post-out so I was happy.”
The Avs broke the Sabers’ bid for a second straight shutout on Mikko Rantanen’s goal with 11:40 to play and ex-Sabre Evan Rodrigues made it 3-2 with 1:22 left. But there was no panic as Dylan Cozens hit the empty net 25 seconds later.
Rasmus Dahlin snipe! 3-0 #LetsGoBuffalo #GoAvsGo pic.twitter.com/TzuZG1uWs2
— Buffalo Hockey moments (@SabresPlays) December 16, 2022
Sabers center Tyson Jost played his first regular season game in Denver against the team he was drafted by in the first round in 2016 in Buffalo. Jost played an exhibition game here with Minnesota in September before he was acquired on waivers by the Sabers last month. The Avalanche did a tribute video during a first-period timeout for Jost, who acknowledged the cheers of the crowd.
With several Denver reporters in the dressing room, Jost’s synopsis of his Buffalo experience went like this: “It’s been awesome. The guys are great. The coaching staff is unbelievable. Just the communication and the style they play how they want to play reminds me a lot of when I first came out here.”
In non-Power lineup shuffling, captain Kyle Okposo (lower body) sat out but could join Bryson in returning on the trip. Vinnie Hinostroza came back into the lineup for Okposo, playing with Zemgus Girgensons and Peyton Krebs.
4. A trade with a WNY twist
The Sabers announced a trade of AHL defensemen with a local twist two hours before faceoff, acquiring Youngstown native Joseph Cecconi from the Dallas Stars in exchange for Rochester blueliner Oskari Laaksonen.
Cecconi, 25, was a former member of the Buffalo Jr. Sabers who played for Team USA in the 2017 World Junior Championships along with current Sabers Thompson and Fitzgerald. The 6-foot-3 Cecconi has two assists this season in 12 games for the Texas Stars and has played 176 games for them the last five years.
Cecconi was Dallas’ fifth-round pick in 2015 and played four years at Michigan. Laaksonen, a former AHL All-Star, fell out of favor in Rochester because of poor defensive play and has been a healthy scratch. The 2017 third-round pick had two points in 10 games.
The Sabers are off Friday and play the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday night in their first visit to Mullett Arena in Tempe, the Yotes’ 4,600-seat home on the campus of Arizona State University. The Coyotes are hosting the New York Islanders there Friday night.