When Pat LaFontaine spoke to the media on Friday morning, he described the Buffalo Sabres locker room as being “lighter.” But the team's new President of Hockey Operations wasn’t talking about a bunch of guys cracking jokes. With just four wins in their first 20 games, LaFontaine was referring to the pianos that had been lifted off the backs of every player in the room.
Steve Ott was one of the players who had been carrying the burden of the difficult start, and it was starting to reflect in his play. Interim coach Ted Nolan said it was obvious to him based on their early conversations.
“[Steve] was frustrated at how the season was going. And he was frustrated at how the group was competing.”
We’re starting fresh, and we’re starting to build from this day on. I really like that a lot of guys played with light shoulders rather than heavy backs. - Steve Ott
The reenergized Ott paced the Sabres with two points in their 3-1 win over Toronto on Friday, including his first goal in seven games dating back to October 28 against Dallas. He also chipped in an assist for his first multipoint game of the season.
The Sabres captain said there’s no denying what his new Hall of Fame boss had said earlier in the day.
“It’s the simple fact that the room has been wiped clean. When they came in here, they told every guy to a man in their personal meetings that everything has been wiped clean,” explained Ott. “I don’t care if you haven’t had a point or you’re minus-15, everything is out the window from the last 20 games. We’re starting fresh, and we’re starting to build from this day on. I really like that a lot of guys played with light shoulders rather than heavy backs.”
Another player that seemed to benefit from the leadership change was Tyler Myers. The young defenseman has been a lightning rod for the team’s struggles so far this season, but he looked like a new player on Friday. Myers picked up the primary assist on Ott’s goal, dished out four hits and blocked a pair of shots. He also jumped into the rush on several occasions, making his towering presence felt at both ends of the ice.
“It was definitely a lighter feeling. When a big change like that is made, it’s normal for guys to come out like we did tonight,” said Myers. “The most important thing moving forward is not losing that feeling, or losing that compete level. It’s a consistency that we have to stick with.”
Marcus Foligno scored the eventual game winner at 15:22 of the second period, literally crashing the Toronto net to cash in feed through the slot from Ott for his first goal in 11 games.
Just like Myers, Foligno said that carrying this new feeling forward is far more important than simply just being happy with a win.
“It’s simple; you forget about this one and move on. We get the same team again (on Saturday) and we have to be able to bring that same effort. There were some great shifts out there, and we hemmed their defense a lot. Our transition was also very good tonight. We didn’t cough up too many pucks, and that was the biggest thing they stressed. From blueline to blueline, you’ve gotta get it in and get it out.”
The fresh start under Nolan and LaFontaine also hasn’t been lost on Foligno. The 22-year-old has shown flashes of being the power forward that many expect him to be, but he’s also vanished at times. With 61 more games to play, Foligno believes this new environment is what the entire room needed – and apparently the fanbase too.
“There’s no disrespect to what happened early in the season, but it’s a clean slate. This is what we’re here to do, and this is what we want to do. We want to be a winning team, and we need everyone on board. Tonight was the loudest that our bench has been in a while, not to mention the fans.”
It took 21 games, but Buffalo’s 10-5 shot lead through the opening 20 minutes was the first time they’ve outshot an opponent in the first period this season. It was also just the fifth time the Sabres have registered double-digit shots in the first period. The Sabres took the first five shots of the game, before James van Riemsdyk registered Toronto’s first shot on a wraparound attempt at 7:06.
Buffalo came into the game having been outshot 214-157 in first periods, and outscored 27-3.
Friday was Brian Flynn’s 47th career NHL game, and he’s now played in each of them without taking a penalty. This is the longest such streak since Mason Raymond (then with Vancouver) played his first 47 games without taking a penalty in 2007-08.
Mike Weber missed his ninth game with a hand injury suffered in Florida on October 25. It was originally thought that Weber would return in one or both games this weekend, but Nolan ruled him out following Friday’s morning skate. Mikhail Grigorenko, Nikita Zadorov and Johan Larsson were Buffalo’s healthy scratches. This was the sixth scratch of the season for Grigorenko, and his fourth in the last six games.