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Tage Thompson dominant again as Sabres snap losing streak in Montreal


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The Sabres came into their Tuesday night trip to Montreal with eight straight regulation losses. In the three losses before the matchup with the Canadiens, the Sabres had begun to lack the determination necessary to snap the streak. They looked slow out of the gate and lost for long stretches against the Canucks, Senators and Maple Leafs. But from the moment the Sabres took the ice in Montreal, they were locked in on the single-minded goal of putting an end to the ugliest stretch of hockey they’ve endured as a group.

“We came out with a mission tonight,” Alex Tuch said.

And it was about time.

Tage Thompson said part of Buffalo’s goal was to be hard to play against. At times, Thompson looked impossible to play against. It started early when he got the puck in the offensive zone and turned to buy time and find Rasmus Dahlin in the slot for a goal 35 seconds into the game. Just 17 seconds later, JJ Peterka whacked home a loose puck in front of the net to put the Sabres up 2-0. Tuch ripped a wrist shot for a power-play goal 1:20 after that to give the Sabres a 3-0 lead early. They then killed off three penalties in the first period. That start was just what the Sabres needed to bust out of their slump and cruise to a 7-2 win over Montreal.

“We played with a purpose,” coach Don Granato said. “We played to an identity, our identity. The emotion they put in the game was outstanding.

“It’s taken a weight off my shoulders, I can tell you that.”

When a team is on a losing streak like the Sabres were, it’s often the best players who are going to pull you out of it. At no point this season has Thompson been part of the Sabres’ problem. He is on a torrid scoring pace to start the season, has carried the offense at times and is getting better as the season goes along. On Tuesday, he again showed just how dominant he can be.

He scored another beautiful goal with a righteous wrist shot that went off the crossbar and in. He had three assists, including one in which he handled the puck in a tight area close to the net and somehow dished a perfect pass to Jeff Skinner, who had a pair of goals. Thompson had 13 shot attempts and five high-danger scoring chances by himself. When he was on the ice at five-on-five, the Sabres had 85 percent of the expected goals.

Thompson is on pace for 56 goals and 112 points. He has at least 11 shot attempts in three straight games and four of the past five. He has 23 points in the past 13 games and is averaging just under 12 shot attempts per game during that span. When he’s on the ice, the Sabres consistently have a chance to score. The way the top line carried the Sabres on Tuesday was the perfect recipe for ending an eight-game slide. Dahlin chipped in with a goal and two assists. He’s at eight goals and 22 points this season, putting him on pace for the first 100-point season by a defenseman since Brian Leetch in 1992 and the first 36-goal season by a defenseman since Paul Coffey in 1985.

As strong as the Sabres’ top players were, there was more to the win than just Thompson, Tuch, Dahlin and Skinner. Here are some takeaways from the Sabres’ slump-busting win:

1. Tyson Jost provided a nice boost to the lineup. Saturday, the Sabres claimed Jost off waivers from the Minnesota Wild. He was able to get to Buffalo and join the team for practice Monday, and Granato wasted no time putting him to work. Jost centered Buffalo’s fourth line, got 3:34 of penalty-kill ice time and even got a shift on the power play. On his first shift as a Sabre, Jost crashed into the offensive zone on the forecheck and drew the ire of Canadiens defenseman Chris Wideman. The two dropped the mitts, and Jost came out on the winning end. Later in the game, he broke up a scoring chance on the penalty kill. That’s not a bad contribution from Jost in his first action for Buffalo.

2. Granato called Mattias Samuelsson’s return to the lineup “enormous.” He wasn’t exaggerating. It became clear early on just how much the Sabres missed Samuelsson, who missed a month with a knee injury. Samuelsson led the team with more than five minutes of ice time on the penalty kill, and the Sabres didn’t allow a power-play goal in the game. At five-on-five, the Sabres had 67 percent of the expected goals when Samuelsson was on the ice. He wasn’t on the ice for a goal against. The Sabres missed his physicality. He had three hits and led all Sabres defensemen with five shot attempts. He looks like he might be one of the Sabres’ most important players.

3. The Sabres might have found the right combination with Dylan Cozens centering JJ Peterka and Jack Quinn. Those three have been together for the Sabres’ recent games against the Bruins and Maple Leafs and this game against the Canadiens. Tuesday, that trio was on the ice for six high-danger chances for and only two against. The Sabres had 87 percent of the expected goals and a 16-7 advantage in shot attempts when they were on the ice at five-on-five. That’s a line that could grow into something special if they get consistent time together. Cozens has been one of Buffalo’s best five-on-five players this season, and he’s getting better and better as a two-way center. He’s the perfect fit to play with two young, talented scorers like Peterka and Quinn.

4. Henri Jokiharju is starting to find his early-season form again. He took a few games to get up to speed after returning from an extended absence due to a facial fracture. Jokiharju was on the ice for six high-danger scoring chances for and only two against on Tuesday. He also scored a goal of his own, and his jubilation was obvious the second the puck went in the net. It hasn’t been an easy start to the season for Jokiharju, but he can be a useful contributor as a top-four defenseman when he plays like he did Tuesday. Being able to pair Dahlin and Samuelsson and then Jokiharju with Owen Power gives the Sabres a dramatically different defensive core than they’ve been managing with for the past month.

5. The line of Victor Olofsson, Casey Mittelstadt and Vinnie Hinostroza was a black hole for the Sabres. Hinostroza had a strong few games in October, but he has cooled off a bit. He wasn’t able to spark Olofsson and Mittelstadt, who have struggled at five-on-five this season. That line had an ugly expected goal share of 6 percent when it was on the ice. It was out there for Montreal’s two goals and had only one shot on goal at five-on-five to six against. As the Sabres continue to identify their core, Olofsson and Mittelstadt will be under the microscope if their early-season five-on-five struggles persist. In terms of expected goals share at five-on-five, Mittelstadt and Olofsson have been Buffalo’s two worst forwards this season. Splitting them up might help isolate the cause of some of those numbers.

 

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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