The Sabres’ Surprising Start

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By Colleen Meosky

Delivering quite a shock to the hockey world, the Buffalo Sabres have started their season as one of the best teams in the National Hockey League. After trading away high profile players Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen and losing goalie Linus Ullmark in free agency, the Sabres lost a great deal of mature talent from their roster. Currently, the organization is still working to find a trade to send a generational talent in the likes of Jack Eichel away as their relationship has gone sour since the centerman has insisted on receiving an unconventional neck surgery for a herniated disk. Nevertheless, newly appointed head coach Don Granato has kept his team focused on winning games, and the remaining players have stepped up to the task phenomenally.

Buffalo fortunately started the season with a four game homestand, winning the first three. Despite losing first line centerman Casey Mittelstadt and top pair defenseman Henri Jokiharju in that time, the Sabres seem to have found a system for success. It’s natural for many fans to hesitate in their excitement because Buffalo has experienced strong season debuts in recent years only to crash and burn after a couple months. However, this year the team is not relying on superstar talent like they have in the past, which is good considering hockey is not an individual sport. Instead, each player feels a greater responsibility to develop their skills and contribute each night. This has meant a revival of lost talent in the team’s veterans, especially for the alternate captains Kyle Okposo and Zemgus Girgensons. 

These two have been highly respected in the locker room and community in their several years here, but their playing has left much to be desired in recent years. Both were top-ten picks in their draft classes, but with the organization on its sixth coach since 2013, building momentum has been a challenge to say the least. With five wins in seven games, Okposo and Girgensons have 5 and 6 points respectively. They both scored on opening night against the Montreal Canadiens and showed their best playing in years, much to the delight of the fans at KeyBank Center. Okposo released a letter addressed to Sabres fans the following day saying, “We were having fun. The fans were having fun. Everybody in the building meshed, I think, for the first time in a long time.

We expect to earn more of those nights going forward.”

Okposo and Girgensons celebrate a goal. Source: sabres.com

The leaders’ energy has spread throughout the roster with the team crediting their quick and free playing style to Coach Granato’s relaxed approach. This is quite a relief for fans tormented by former coach Ralph Krueger’s agonizing system that made the world’s most elite hockey players forget how to make a breakout pass, overthinking every stride in a game. Young talents such as Rasmus Dahlin were restricted by the old style of playing, and the smooth-skating defenseman wasn’t drafted first overall to not carry the puck. Don Granato recognizes his players’ abilities and caters his coaching to that. The young core is now demonstrating confidence during games, finally providing viewers with an exciting type of hockey. Dahlin says, “It’s just fun to have the puck and you’re not thinking.”

The new coaching, low expectations, and fans returning to the building have been factors in this surprising but welcome start of the season, but Jeff Skinner’s choice of “Party in the USA” as his goal song certainly hasn’t hurt.

Source: Buffalo Sabres Twitter

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