The Buffalo Sabres have gone from worst to first, and the rest of the NHL is on notice.
With a 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday night, the Sabres have a league-leading 36 points. That makes Buffalo the first team ever to finish the previous season with the worst record and lead the NHL outright in points after 25 games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Five teams have been tied for first place, the most recent being the 1967-68 Bruins.
The Sabres are riding a 10-game winning streak, tied for the longest in franchise history. It’s the NHL’s best run since the Columbus Blue Jackets won 16 in a row from Nov. 29, 2016, to Jan. 3, 2017.
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Nine of the 10 games have been decided by one goal, and Tuesday’s marked the seventh one decided after regulation — and third in a row.
“When it’s a tight game, we feel confident. If we’re down we don’t panic,” said defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, who opened the scoring with a deke around Brent Burns. “We believe.”
Buffalo finished the 2017-18 season with a 25-45-12 (62 points) record but won the draft lottery to select Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin with the No. 1 pick.
“Obviously, it was really emotional last year being so bad,” said Nathan Beaulieu, who also scored for Buffalo on Tuesday. “I think everyone took it personally this offseason and it’s showing.”
Dahlin, a smooth-skating 18-year-old, is averaging 19 minutes per night and leads all NHL rookies with 11 assists. He’s not the only Buffalo player setting the pace. Jeff Skinner, who hit the overtime winner Tuesday, leads the league with 14 even-strength goals, and Ristolainen’s 82 hits lead all NHL defensemen.
The turnaround isn’t a total surprise. Over the summer, ESPN polled 58 players, front-office executives and coaches, and asked them the same question: What team has the capacity to surprise this season? Of the 58 people polled for the question, 29 independently identified Buffalo.
“They were a really active team over the summer,” one GM said. “And when you inject that much change, you expect to see different results.”
Indeed, Buffalo GM Jason Botterill set out to change the culture this past summer. Botterill orchestrated a trade that sent one of the team’s best players, center Ryan O’Reilly, to St. Louis. In return, the Sabres received two veteran centers in Vladimir Sobotka and Patrik Berglund, talented young forward Tage Thompson and two draft picks, including a first-rounder in 2019. Botterill also acquired Conor Sheary, Sidney Crosby’s old winger in Pittsburgh, for the cost of taking on defenseman Matt Hunwick’s contract. Botterill snagged Skinner, a three-time 30-goal scorer, from Carolina and also picked up the prize goalie of the free-agent market, Carter Hutton.
Skinner has thrived playing on franchise center Jack Eichel’s wing, putting up 19 goals in his first 25 games. Hutton, meanwhile, has posted a .920 save percentage and 2.50 GAA in 18 starts. Thompson has three goals in his last five games.
The Sabres haven’t made the playoffs since 2011. Phil Housley, entering his second season, is the fifth coach to man the bench in that time.
“It’s tough when you lose that much because you question everything you do,” Eichel told ESPN before the season. “I never lost my love for the game, but it made doing it every day a lot tougher when you’re losing, everything is negative, and you’re just trying to find the positives in what you’re doing. … I just thought that there was too much complacency and there was a lot of ‘Happy to be here. Who cares if I work at my game? I’m already in the NHL.’ I think that’s pretty contagious, and it can cause a lot of problems.”
In the same interview, Eichel said: “I think things are really heading in the right direction. I can confidently say that now.”