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DUNLEAVY: Total team commitment kept Sabres in race

by Dan Dunleavy @Dan_Dunleavy /

It has been a busy last few weeks around the Buffalo Sabres. Not a lot of practice time in February, but a lot of games. With RJ resting his Hall-of-Fame vocal chords for a potential playoff ride in April, it's been my pleasure and honor to have had a front row seat calling all the action. 

Coaches want the practice time. Players want to play. Fans want games that are meaningful. For the latter, the Sabres have been able to hang around the Eastern Conference playoff picture up to this break in the action, and it's given a new energy to hockey in Western New York for the first time in a few seasons (certainly the first since I was asked to join the organization). 

 Gone are the years of wondering who would lead this team to the next chapter, gone - for me, anyway - is the question as to who will be the next starting goaltender to carry the load of leadership on the ice, and have the backbone to take all the shots that will come his way on an off night. 

While there are still pro hockey lessons to be learned by all of the young men on Buffalo's roster, the ability to affect the outcome of a game when a goal is needed surely has shown itself in Jack Eichel. His playmaking ability along with his marksman-like shot has opposing teams game planning ways to keep the puck off his stick. 

The problem for those opposing teams is that the Sabres and Jack are doing a good job at making sure No. 15 gets the puck on his stick on a majority of zone entries to set up the attack. 

One moment from this past stretch of games that jumps to mind in regards to Jack's playmaking ability is the overtime rush up ice against San Jose at KeyBank Center. Many fans had left the arena once the Sharks went up 4-1 at the 6:07 mark of the third. 

But we learned something about this group of Sabres and maybe they learned something about themselves when with just over half a period to go, they scored three unanswered goals within a span of 3:28 to tie the game. That run set up an OT goal that brought the remaining fans to their feet and those who left and were in their cars asking, "Why did we leave?!!!"

Video: SJS@BUF: Eichel, Kane combine for awesome game-winner

Since that game, it has been a bit of a roller coaster ride with the Sabres trading wins and losses before they strung together a three-game winning streak in which all three victories came in regulation. That's exactly what the doctor ordered if this team had any chance at all of being in any kind of chase for a playoff spot through the month of March and into early April. 

What has really stood out for me during this run has been the leadership, the tenacity and the battling of starting goaltender Robin Lehner. 

In my eyes, this player has risen to the occasion and has emerged as this team's No. 1 goaltender and a legit No. 1 in the NHL. I've heard talk shows in town still debate whether they have seen enough from Robin. I have. 

He leads by example in the way he competes, keeps his team in games, and if he lets in a goal he wishes he had back, he seems to be learning how to put that behind him and battle to make the next save. 

Pad saves kicked to the corners and not out to the slot for a second or third chance on goal. Glove saves where, again, rebounds are not aplenty. All part of - for me at least - Lehner's maturation into the role of a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL.

Video: STL@BUF: Lehner gloves puck off the crossbar

Another facet of this team I have enjoyed watching this month has been the younger kids coming up from Rochester and having an impact on the games. 

Now, this doesn't always happen even with the current crop I am giving props to in this article, but it's happening enough at the moment to keep the Sabres in the playoff conversation. Injuries or illnesses have played a big role in this season for Buffalo's favorite hockey team. 

Of late, the play of Justin Bailey, Evan Rodrigues and (the latest) Nicholas Baptiste has been impressive and fun to watch. You hope that youth brings speed in today's NHL. All three have not disappointed in that aspect of the game. 

The enthusiasm, desire, and coachability of those players are all adding to this team's ability to put some wins together. You could see the jump in Baptiste's step when he got to play on a line with Jack Eichel against the Blues, and to take advantage of his opportunity by scoring what would be his third goal of the season was great to watch and even better to call.

Video: STL@BUF: Baptiste slips home a nifty backhander

Before the guys went for their break, they faced a fresher Chicago team that was one game back from their layoff. The first game back for the Hawks versus Edmonton resulted in a loss, a common theme for teams coming off this break. But their second game back showed a different-looking Chicago team, and they seemed to wear down what appeared to be a tired group of Sabres. 

To me, a perfect storm for a Hawks win that night and Buffalo just had run out of gas to stay in the hunt with a potential Cup contender.

We come back with games this week on the road, yet more back-to-backs, with the first stop in Denver and then the next night in Phoenix. One day off after a late-night flight home and then Nashville comes calling in Buffalo. It will be a battle to stay in the mix for sure. We can only wait and see and hope that this team has it in them.

And, on a couple of final notes, I wanted to say thanks to everyone who has offered very kind words around the rink, at the border, and around the city of Buffalo and Southern Ontario. I accepted an offer to come work with this organization, wanting to be part of this team's future. I hope that future for all of us has started now and continues for many seasons to come. 

Video: The Eichel Tower

And may I add my thanks to the creators of the piece put together about the Eichel Tower (above) and how that call originated - and who it affected most. I was disappointed not to be able to meet C.J. and see the tower this season, but here is to hoping we meet soon, along what will be a wonderful road full of wins for your Buffalo Sabres.

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