Victor Olofsson admitted to feeling a bit frustrated as he worked to find his game during the first two periods against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night.
Olofsson had missed 15 contests since sustaining a lower-body injury on Jan. 2. It being his first experience with an injury of that length, he had little precedent in terms of what to expect coming back.
Then the Sabres went on the power play in the third period, and it was as if he had never left. Olofsson used his signature one-timer from his signature spot in the right faceoff circle to tie the game, 2-2. He later capped the evening by burying a feed from Jack Eichel in overtime to clinch a 4-3 victory at KeyBank Center.
"I thought he needed 10 minutes first period," Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said. "He was a little bit off here and there. But once he found his legs - and he found his hands - it was just outstanding to have him back. We know why he's the rookie of the year in the National Hockey League for us, no questions asked. He showed it again tonight. We missed him dearly and it was just fabulous to have him back as a person and as a player."
Video: Condensed Game: Blue Jackets @ Sabres
Even with his long absence, it's no stretch to suggest Olofsson could still find himself in the thick of the race for the Calder Trophy. His two-goal outing gave him 18 this season, moving him ahead of Dennis Gurianov for sole possession of second place among rookies. His 37 points rank third, seven shy of leader Quinn Hughes.
Krueger has spoken glowingly about the way Olofsson approached his recovery since he returned to practice last Saturday. More so than just spending time in the weight room, Krueger saw Olofsson actively try to study the games. The coach believed he would return a better player for the experience.
His return was an instant reminder of the threat he provides for a team looking to improve its scoring. Olofsson's night ended with only two shots on net, but both went for goals.
"His shot is so dynamic, all it takes is one, two scoring chances and he changes the game," Evan Rodrigues said. "He's lethal on that side of the power play. It's almost like he doesn't get a shot in the first two periods and then it's one chance and it's in. That's the type of game-changer he is."
Olofsson returned to a line alongside Eichel and Sam Reinhart, with whom he enjoyed much of his success prior to his injury. It was Eichel who fed Olofsson's power-play goal by cutting toward the middle of the ice to create the high-to-low passing lane that set up the one-time shot.
Video: CBJ@BUF: Olofsson buries Eichel one-timer for PPG
In overtime, Eichel collected a loose puck in the neutral zone, burst past two defenders and, as he neared the Columbus net, turned to deliver a perfect pass to a trailing Olofsson, who picked the far-side corner.
Video: CBJ@BUF: Olofsson nets Eichel's set-up for OT winner
"Knowing that their guys have been out there for a little bit, the minute I have a gap, just try to attack them," Eichel said. "Vic, he's a pure goal-scorer, finds a great spot. I kind of knew he was coming behind me and he buries it. It's a great play."
For a night that began in frustration, Olofsson was satisfied with the result.
"I didn't feel great the first couple periods, so I needed some time to find my game," he said. "But right now, it feels great."
A resilient effort
Krueger admitted the guests inside KeyBank Center were a topic of some conversation during the second intermission.
The evening began draped in nostalgia, as alumni from the 2000s - many of whom played on beloved teams that went to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals - took the ice pregame. Former owner Tom Golisano, who was integral to keeping the team in Buffalo, was also in attendance.
Yet the Sabres fell behind, 2-0, during the first two periods. Eichel cut the deficit in half with an end-to-end goal just before the intermission.
"The atmosphere here was something that inspired us and after 30 minutes, we weren't happy with where we were sitting knowing that," Krueger said. "There was language around that after the second period too. There's some eyes on us today that we'd like to go home proud."
Video: CBJ@BUF: Eichel rifles wrist shot home off the rush
The Sabres turned in a spirted effort in the third. After Olofsson tied the game early, Rodrigues scored from the slot to put them ahead with 4:26 left to play. Markus Nutivaara tied the game for Columbus with the net empty and 1:13 remaining, but even then, the Sabres didn't relent.
A flurry of chances in the final minute of regulation nearly resulted in Olofsson ending the game on a feed from Sam Reinhart. That energy snowballed into the victorious overtime period.
"I think we felt throughout the game we were the stronger team, better team," Rodrigues said. "We didn't get down when they scored. It was almost like as soon as they scored, we had a sense of optimism on the bench we were going to win it or win it in OT. So, it was just that never-give-up-attitude and that confidence and almost a little bit of swagger to go out to try to win it before overtime."
"The resiliency in the group right now is strong and you can feel the calmness," added Krueger. "There's a maturity dealing with adversity against an outstanding Columbus team. You know why they're one of the best teams in the league in the last couple of months. They don't give you anything."
That resiliency manifested itself in physical responses, too. After Eric Robinson clipped Carter Hutton while he crossed the Buffalo net, Jake McCabe responded with a series of cross-checks to the Blue Jackets forward. Kyle Okposo tossed his gloves and quickly joined the fray.
The Sabres came out of the situation shorthanded for two minutes - a call Krueger disagreed with - but killed the penalty, much to the satisfaction of the crowd. It was the sort of showing the players had in mind with so many alumni in the building.
"I think they're going to be proud of what they saw here today," Krueger said.
The Sabres conclude the homestand against Toronto on Sunday. Coverage on MSG begins at 6:30 p.m., or you can listen to the game on WGR 550. Puck drop is scheduled for 7.