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Krueger has Sabres playing connected during fast start

Coach helped build players' confidence, believing early success is sustainable

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

NEW YORK -- Play connected.

It's a phrase Jack Eichel and his Buffalo Sabres teammates can't miss. On this night, it's written on a sign adorning the door to the visitors dressing room at Madison Square Garden. It's talked about wherever the Sabres go thanks to new coach Ralph Krueger.

"That's a big message from Ralph, being connected, being on the same page," said Eichel, the Sabres captain. "It's more than just being on the ice. It's off the ice, locker room, weight room, everything we do we try to be together as much as we can as a group. It's important."

It's working.

The Sabres, who have the longest Stanley Cup Playoff drought in the League at eight seasons, have been one of the surprising success stories early in the season.

They're first in the League with nine wins and tied for first with the Washington Capitals with 19 points.

"I just think the connection between the room and the coaching staff has been a really good one so far," Eichel said. "The guys, we have some confidence in our game right now."

Video: SJS@BUF: Eichel knocks in game-winning goal in OT

But they're not getting ahead of themselves. That is a significant step in maturity for the Sabres from last season.

The Sabres were in first place in the NHL on Nov. 28 last season after defeating the San Jose Sharks 3-2 in overtime for their 10th straight win the night before. They were 17-6-2 through 25 games, good for 36 points, red-hot and feeling invincible even though only three of their 10 consecutive wins came in regulation.

They crashed, winning 16 of their final 57 games, finishing 22 points out of a playoff position. Former coach Phil Housley was fired April 7, the day after the season ended. Krueger was hired on May 15.

"The pain of last year is an opportunity for us as a group," Krueger said. "The group had success, went through an extremely painful phase. That's when winners are born, when you have pain and how you react to it."

Eichel said the Sabres are staying grounded now largely because of what they experienced last season.

"We're trying to figure out the best way to stay as even-keeled as possible through an 82-game year," he said. "When we win a game, enjoy the win for that night and move on to the next game because it just comes so fast in this league."

Added forward Jeff Skinner: "I know guys realize there is a lot of season left and we have to keep improving, keep getting better. That's been the mentality, as it should be. Whatever your record is at this point in the season, there [are] still 70 games left so you have to find a way to keep improving because that's what the League does."

Video: SJS@BUF: Skinner pots goal off Eichel's nice pass

The Sabres' maturity is showing in their play, which has been consistent and to the point of Krueger's play-quick system, which has been their hallmark this season.

They are putting teams on their heels because of how fast they get the puck off their sticks and how quickly they play in transition.

"The overall system that he's tried to implement here has been the quicker the forwards get back, the quicker the 'D' can get them the puck, the quicker we can to the offensive side of things," Eichel said. "It's been one of our strong suits this season, being able to transition the puck quick and get on the other team as quick as possible and not let them set up. The times we have had trouble or struggled a bit it's been due to the lack of effectiveness of our transition game."

They struggled against the New York Rangers on the road Thursday and lost 6-2. They got it back Friday and defeated the Detroit Red Wings 2-0 at Little Caesars Arena.

"Often the team speed you create through those [puck] movements are because players are pre-positioning themselves to be options and we can support each other all the way up the ice," Krueger said. "That's been happening here regularly. We're solving pressure."

They're connected.

"Every team is looking for that," Skinner said. "Every team wants to have five guys on the same page at all times."

The Sabres, who play the Arizona Coyotes at KeyBank Center on Monday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, TVAS, MSG-B, FS-A PLUS, NHL.TV) have it now. They believe it's sustainable, but they won't take it for granted.

"Staying humble is so important, and the way you do that the best is if you keep that picture really small and you stay in the moment, work on the next task that you have, make sure that the most important thing for you is to improve," Krueger said.

"This group is all in on all of those things. If you see a little less work in practice, you've got to ring a bell. That hasn't happened. If you see a little less concentration in the meetings you have to scream, and if somebody doesn't do the work that has no statistics on defense, you need to react. But that hasn't happened. Those are all good signs that the group understands and respects the situation we're in."

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