Ryan O’Reilly netted his 100th career goal, an overtime gem scored while falling backwards, to give the Sabres a 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night at the First Niagara Center.
In the first year of his seven-year, $52 million contract, the Sabres points leader extended his current streak to seven games (3G-7A-10P). It came exactly at the right moment.
The Sabres had just come off of a miserable three game western road trip which saw them outscored 13-7, putting them in position to fall one point behind last year’s historically bad season.
Things looked bleak; the offense had been sputtering, the defense had been porous and the goaltenders had begun failing to make the key saves that might have made differences. And the Sabres were set to host the Kings, the league’s hottest team. There was every reason to fear the worst.
At 4:47 of the first period, on the King’s first shot of the game, Marian Gaborik finished off a 2-on-1 from Anze Kopitar. This seemed to confirm the darkest fan worries.
The three Sabres who have been playing consistently good hockey refused to lay down. The response took only a few minutes as Jamie McGinn, who has points in seven of his last eight games, tallied a power play goal from Ristolainen and O’Reilly.
The positive attitude and effort spread through the Sabre bench like wildfire. The defense tightened up, supported each other and kept things simple. Ristolainen, whose name has begun to appear in sentences that include the term ‘Norris consideration,’ didn’t give an inch while battling juggernaut Milan Lucic. The Kings were held to only three shots in the first period.
The forwards kept up a fierce forecheck at break-neck speed. Rookie sensation Jack Eichel, while held off the scoresheet due to an overturned call on an offsides coach’s review, played a strong game and had a number of quality chances. It was a true team effort. Even usually invisible Johan Larsson made a number of strong plays.
Ullmark stood tall when needed. He played a focused and controlled game. And the team needed him; after two periods, despite registering only 10 shots against, half of them were counted as scoring chances. He stopped 20 shots, 3 in OT including a breakaway by Kopitar.
Then came the overtime when the Sabres true captain stepped up to lead by example. Interviewed afterward, he continued exemplifying his leadership.
“Obviously, I feel good about myself,” said O’Reilly, “Anytime you can win a game you feel great, but at the same time we have to start preparing for Detroit (Monday at Joe Louis Arena). This win means nothing if we don’t come again the next game and do the same things.”
The Sabres put together their strongest 60-minute game this season and perhaps in several seasons. They have a long way to go, but perhaps the worst of the storm is over.