The phrase “playing for pride” usually doesn’t resonate all too well with fans, and for good reason. When that phrase gets uttered, it’s almost always because the team in question is far beyond the reach of success—a common occurrence being a failure to reach the playoffs.
The Buffalo Sabres are most certainly “playing for pride” right now, but fans better be appreciating the improvement and vigor that this team has been showing on the ice as the NHL regular season winds down.
Last night’s 3-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes was one that is hard to imagine coming from the teams we had to watch over the last few years. Buffalo’s pace slowed to a crawl as the third period progressed, allowing Carolina to score the go-ahead goal with under seven minutes left in the game. Rather than wilt, the Sabres came roaring back by scoring two goals within a minute of one another to claim the season sweep on the Hurricanes.
Prominent Sabres like Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly, and Sam Reinhart were contributors to one of those goals that eventually earned Buffalo the win, but last night’s greatest honors should go to players who normally don’t find themselves in the limelight.
Carlo Colaiacovo scored his first on the season with the Sabres, while Johan Larsson netted the game-winning goal through an impressive display of persistence and grit in the Carolina zone. Together with captain Brian Gionta, Larsson thwarted an attempt by the Hurricanes to clear their zone before firing a shot past Cam Ward for his seventh goal this year.
That seventh goal for Larsson has already lifted him to his greatest total in one NHL season; last year he scored six while playing in 39 games with the Sabres. He’s earned four of them within the last calendar month, and across this season, they’ve often come at pivotal moments for the Sabres. Four his seven goals have been game-winning tallies, including his back-breaking shot last night that came with only about four minutes left to play in the contest.
Then there’s that goaltender that fans don’t always talk about as much lately, the one who may not be able to scare the life out of opponents with a devilish gaze, but has won six of his last seven starts and has reached a new plateau for regular season wins with 18.
Chad Johnson once again stole the show last night in Raleigh, even if his 25-save performance was among the least dramatic of his wins this season. He kept the Sabres in the game with his patented dives across the crease and managed to fend off a huge breakaway opportunity by the Hurricanes late in the game just after they took the lead. Seeing as how the Sabres only really began to find their offensive fire as the third period drew to a close, it’s fair to say that Johnson carried the greatest load long enough for the team to eventually skate away with two points.
Maybe Johnson doesn’t throw hands quite like Lehner, and he certainly doesn’t possess the petrifying glare that Lehner does, but last night was another reminder that Johnson is the best goaltender that the Buffalo Sabres have had guard the pipes this season.