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Sabres turning early struggles into current gains

by Joe Yerdon

BUFFALO -- Expectations can be a funny thing.

Before the season began for the Buffalo Sabres, it was expected by most outside of the organization they would be one of the worst teams in the NHL and a season-long contender to earn the first pick in the 2015 NHL Draft.

Through the first month-and-a-half of the season, the Sabres fit that description perfectly. Buffalo won three of its first 18 games and appeared to be well on the way to having the best shot to select top prospect Connor McDavid.

"We obviously didn't get the start we wanted this season but we stuck with it," Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers said. "We stuck with coming to the rink trying to improve every day. We knew it wasn't going to be a quick fix, we just had to keep doing the right things, the little things, and it's been a lot better of late for sure, but there's always room for improvement."

Since a 6-3 loss at the Minnesota Wild on Nov. 13, things have changed dramatically for the Sabres. After a 5-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday, they have won 10 out of 15 games and have stunned many with three three-game winning streaks.

"I think paying attention to detail is a big thing," Sabres captain Brian Gionta said. "We're on the right side of the puck for the most part. You look at the wins, when we win, we're limiting our turnovers. We're limiting our in-zone time. There are a lot of things. Goaltending has been good for us, timely for us."

The role goalies Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth have played in winning games has been vital. Of the Sabres' 10 wins in 15 games, Enroth has nine. In his past 12 appearances, he has a .928 save percentage and faced 389 shots on goal.

"He's played well in almost every game he's been in," Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. "Even games he let in four, he didn't let that fifth one in to beat us or that fourth one in to beat us. When we see them tie it up, he shut the door for us and, particularly in the shootouts, he's been really, really good and gave us a chance to get those points. No complaints about his play so far."

Neuvirth has played well but hasn't factored too much into the Sabres winning ways. He has a .915 save percentage but has started in four of the past 15 games and left his Nov. 18 start against the San Jose Sharks after one period with a lower-body injury.

Since then, Neuvirth made two starts on the road against the Florida Panthers and Winnipeg Jets, and lost each of them. He allowed eight goals on 73 shots but was victimized by his defense.

"It's tough," Nolan said. "He has to work extra hard right now and wait for the opportunities. When Jhonas is playing so well, it's tough to pull him out but yet you have to play [Neuvirth]. So when he does get those moments, he almost has to do extra work well in order to get another moment. I think it'll make him stronger and better in the long run."

It hasn't just been the goaltending that's helped the Sabres turn things around; the offense has picked up its play.

In the first 18 games of the season, the Sabres scored 25 goals. Of its three wins, two came in a shootout, and Buffalo was shutout in five of the first 12 games.

"You really can't put a finger on it," forward Marcus Foligno said. "There [were] new guys coming in, right, so the chemistry might not be there right away, so I think it develops over time. We're glad it developed earlier rather than later."

Gionta was one of those new guys. He signed as a free agent on July 1 and joined up with Matt Moulson, who returned to the Sabres as a free agent. Moulson was traded by the Sabres to the Wild at the NHL Trade Deadline last season, but returned after he signed a five-year, $25 million contract. Getting the forwards on the same page took time, but the results of late have showed patience has paid off.

"You're spending less in-zone time," Gionta said. "You're coming out of your own zone with possession, it sets you up a little better coming through the neutral zone whether it's placement of your dumps with guys being able to get there or it's taking that line rush and being able to create something off that rush."

In the past 15 games, the Sabres have scored 36 goals and are shooting 9.6 percent. When compared to what they did in the first 18 games when they shot 5.9 percent, the Sabres are finally getting the bounces.

"I think a lot of it is individual confidence, team confidence," Myers said. "We have guys stepping up and our top line with [Tyler] Ennis, Moulson and [Zemgus Girgensons] are really stepping up for us and carrying the group up front. That's not to say the other lines are not contributing either. The depth we have on our lines has really improved, and the way we're playing it's giving us a chance to win every night."

Buffalo's top line has led the way. Ennis' 22 points leads the Sabres with Girgensons right behind him with 17, and Moulson has 15. Drew Stafford has 16 points.

"Confidence is huge," Foligno said. "I think even if you get some more momentum, anything, it can spring you forward a lot. [It's] confidence in just each other. I think lines know what we're doing, our tendencies of where we want to place the puck, and then how to get to the net and quicker ways [to score] rather than taking a while, maybe the second and third, we're scoring in the first period now, which is nice. It just comes from making plays and believing in each other."

One of the other lines that's stepped up has Torrey Mitchell at center with Gionta and Brian Flynn on the wings. Gionta has 11 points and is one of five Sabres in double figures. Flynn has four goals; he scored six in 79 games last season, and came into this season with 12 in his NHL career.

"Some players take a little bit of time," Nolan said. "You don't pigeonhole someone when they're 22 or 23 and some people take a little bit longer. He seems like he's just starting to come into his own."

The Sabres are a young team and many of the key contributors are ones the organization is likely happy to see leading the way. Ennis is 25 years old. Myers is 24. Girgensons is 21. Defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen, 20, and Nikita Zadorov, 19, have emerged to be part of the top four on the blue line. Having them lead the way is a great sign for things to come, but there's still learning to be done.

"The line combinations, our goaltending, the emergence of our young defensemen; I believe we have the youngest defensemen in the League," Nolan said. "There's a fine point between developing and winning and ice time and all those things so thank God we have some maturity here with (assistant coach) Bryan Trottier going through what he did. Sometimes you want to sit down people and he says, 'Hey, let's put them right back on the horse and put them out there again.' Having that strong feeling with the coaching staff is important."

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