Before Jack Eichel saved the day with his late-game heroics on Thursday, the Buffalo Sabres had done well to control the pace of play in the second and third periods against the League's highest-scoring offense in the New York Rangers. They kept the game largely in the offensive zone and utilized their defensemen as well as they have all season, generating 27 shot attempts from the back end.
Jake McCabe led the way with eight shot attempts, while current partner Rasmus Ristolainen and former partner Cody Franson contributed six apiece. There were four shot attempts from Justin Falk, two from Josh Gorges and one from Taylor Fedun that found its way to the net.
"I think it's indicative of where we played," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said following the team's practice at HarborCenter on Friday. "We played in the offensive zone. We really have noticed peaks in our game when our defensemen are getting involved and when they're getting shots from the point … It was really our best five-man [effort] and the shot attempts from our D-men are indicative of that."
Video: Sabres in :90 (12/2/16)
Franson, who was the only defenseman to put four shots on goal, echoed his coach's assessment, adding that the defensive contributions were partially a product of Buffalo's forward play. When the Rangers' defense swarmed the Sabres' offense down low, the forwards cycled the puck to their defense out at the point. Once they received the puck, the defensemen were quick to shoot.
"Our forwards checked very well, they put the puck in smart areas and at smart times to get it back," Franson said. "The Rangers, they play that swarming style which is tough to break free of and our forwards did a great job. When you get loose against that swarm sometimes you can open things up and our forwards were able to do that."
That style of play culminated in a dominant shift early in the second period, when the Sabres rolled their lines and forced the Rangers to ice the puck until coach Alain Vigneault used his timeout with 15:14 still on the clock. Rangers defenseman Nick Holden was caught on the ice for 3:46 in that stretch.
"I think we knew their strong suit wasn't their D-zone play," McCabe said. "They're a team that wanted to play offense and play in our end just like any other team, but especially this team. We did a good job with forwards working down low and we were rolling over lines and keeping guys out there, forcing icings and they had to burn a timeout.
"That's kind of our MO here going forward. We can really grind things down in the offensive zone. It's fun to watch our forwards go to work and for us defensemen. It's fun to play in the O-zone too, it means a lot less defending."
McCabe admitted before the game on Thursday that he had been unhappy with his performance in Ottawa one game prior, which was his first appearance on a pair with Ristolainen. He rebounded with a strong two-way performance against New York, picking his spots to join the rush to extend offensive zone possessions. One of those moments led to a rebound chance at the end of the first period, and another turned into a one-time chance that McCabe shot wide but recovered to extend the possession that led to Brian Gionta's second-period goal.
Video: NYR@BUF: Gionta scores on Foligno's nifty dish
"He's a great player, there's no way around that," Franson said of McCabe. "He's a guy that can get up and down the ice if need be. He's well-rounded, he's a great two-way defenseman. I think that offensive side of his game just continues to show. He makes those offensive reads of when to dive down, when to pinch, when to pull out, when to put a shot towards the net or make a different play with it or make that safe play just by putting it back down behind the net. He's continually improving."
On defense, meanwhile, McCabe came up big with a game-high five blocked shots.
"I think that's part of my job and part of my role on this team is to kill penalties and block shots and I think that's the basis, that's kind of the groundwork of my game," he said. "You can worry about the offensive side once you have the defensive side figure out."
Gorges misses practice with injury
Gorges was on the ice as players trickled out for practice on Friday, but left before practice began. Bylsma said he sustained an injury while blocking a shot against New York and will undergo further testing.
"Josh took a shot in the game last night and obviously tried it today," Bylsma said. "He got an x-ray after the game last night, he's going to get some more testing on it today … We're just kind of waiting to see the results of the next test."
Bylsma confirmed another recall is possible if Gorges is unable to play against Boston on Saturday.
Lehner to start against Boston
Robin Lehner will return to the net on Saturday afternoon after missing the game against New York with a hip injury. Lehner sustained the injury during the first period of Buffalo's game in Ottawa on Tuesday.
Coverage of the game between the Sabres and Bruins begins at 12:30 p.m. with the TOPS Pregame Show on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 500. The puck drops at 1 p.m.