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NHL

OK, What The Heck Is Going On With The Sabres?

BUFFALO, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 16: Buffalo Sabres players celebrate a goal by Cody Eakin #20 during the second period of a NHL hockey game against the Arizona Coyotes at KeyBank Center on October 16, 2021 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Joshua Bessex/Getty Images)
Joshua Bessex/Getty Images

If there was any comfortable guarantee to be made about the NHL season, it was this: The Buffalo Sabres were going to be garbage. This was because they had been garbage last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, all the way back as far as at least the last lockout, and they had only become more of a disaster in the 2021 offseason. The team’s relationship with Jack Eichel, the franchise’s centerpiece and lone bright spot since he debuted with the team in 2015, has completely deteriorated over conflicting medical views on the herniated disc in his neck, and as a result the Sabres have been struggling to find some way to get him out of Buffalo. What they’ve been left with, then, is more or less the desolate roster of a team that finished last year 28th in goals scored and 29th in goals against—now minus its best player (and its second-best, with Sam Reinhart traded to Florida).

But so far in this young season, the Sabres have stubbornly refused to be anybody’s punching bag. Led by legends and near-legends like Zemgus Girgensons, Tage Thompson, and Kyle Okposo—did I mention Zemgus Girgensons?—Buffalo has won its first three games, asserting itself at the top of the Atlantic Division. What the hell!

The most recent of these wins, all at home, came last night against the Canucks. The opening portion of this game felt like … well, like a Tuesday night game between the Sabres and Canucks. The building was mostly empty and eerily quiet as Vancouver built up a 2-1 lead in the game’s first 37 minutes. But late in the second, in the dying moments of a power play, it was Girgensons—the “Latvian Locomotive”—who tied it back up with a deflection on an Okposo shot in front of the net. Girgensons, who’s now the longest-tenured Sabre in his eighth season, is also the guy who earned the GWG in their first game, and his contributions from relative obscurity is indicative of what the Sabres need to win literally any game this year.

The go-ahead goal in this one, however, came off the stick of the closest thing the Sabres have to a name—Jeff Skinner, the man who scored over 200 goals with the Hurricanes, came to Buffalo and immediately tallied 40 in 2018–19, and then just kind of fell off the map. Like everyone else on the team, Skinner suffered through an awful run of form last year, scoring seven times in 53 games and continuing a sharp downward trend in his production. But he got a pretty one on Tuesday—his first of the season—by sliding into position for a rebound and then lifting a backhand over Thatcher Demko. Tage Thompson—who’s really tall!—added one later and then the Sabres got an empty-netter to win this thing 5-2.

This is officially a streak, right? Three games is a streak. Especially when you’re the Sabres and haven’t won three in a row since February 2020, and haven’t started off a season with three wins since the days when Maxim Afinogenov roamed Western New York. To some extent, this explains the relative hoopla around the Sabres starting with the same record as three other teams—it’s kind of like seeing a dog stand on its hind legs. But 3-0-0 is 3-0-0, even if it’s met with a condescending “aww, they’re almost like a real team!” Like on Saturday afternoon against the Coyotes, when the tomato-mulleted Cody Eakin scored on this scrappy rebound to force an eventual shootout that Buffalo would win—that’s worth just as much, officially, as the Penguins destroying the defending champs on opening night.

But that doesn’t mean Buffalo is belief-alo just yet. To give a sense of how excited people were about the Sabres heading into this year, here is a photo of the Buffalo crowd from after the Eakin goal. (Announced attendance for the Canucks game on Tuesday was 38 percent of the arena’s capacity.)

Credit: Joshua Bessex/Getty Images

These are not the kind of vibes that can change overnight—not without a complete roster overhaul or at the very least the Christ-like return of Eichel. But now, as the team has already reached one-fifth of their win total from last season, they have at least earned some attention, if not quite respect. Everyone who thought this team could be easily ignored this year (myself included) is now glancing up in the standings and wondering if, just maybe, some sort of sustained fluky run is possible.

“Everyone here has got something to prove, and we just want to go out there and earn it every single day,” young center Dylan Cozens said after Tuesday’s game. “We want to prove all the doubters wrong. We want to go out there and show we can be a really good team in this league.”

Now it starts to get real, though. All three teams on the losing end in Buffalo so far might kind of suck, too. The Canadiens, obviously, just made a wild sprint to the Stanley Cup Final, but they also finished 18th overall in the league last year and are missing Carey Price, Joel Edmundson, and Shea Weber. (They’re winless in four to start this campaign.) Arizona is maybe the only franchise in more disarray than the Sabres. And Vancouver finished last in their division this past season and didn’t even have Quinn Hughes out there on Tuesday.

The upcoming list of opponents for the Sabres is significantly more intimidating: Bruins, Devils, Lightning, and then a West Coast road trip. It may not be a full-on murderer’s row, but it still might be more than enough to snuff out the little spark that the Sabres have so far managed to nurture. By this time next week, it’s possible we’ll have forgotten all about Buffalo’s cute little start. “Oh how delightfully random!” we’ll say when reminded. But if somehow the Sabres are still kicking after this next stretch of games, it might be time to freak the hell out.