Ralph Krueger felt the Buffalo Sabres had begun to establish consistent habits away from the puck during their past six games entering Monday. Their strong defensive play had led to chances offensively, but those opportunities had not yet led to goals on a consistent basis.
That changed against the New Jersey Devils. The Sabres buried five goals in the first period against goaltender Louis Domingue and never looked back in what ended as a 7-1 victory at KeyBank Center.
It was a fitting performance for a franchise celebrating a birthday. Members of the Knox family were in attendance to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the day Buffalo was awarded an NHL franchise: Dec. 2, 1969.
"The last six games before this really had been games of good habits and a lot of the offense that we were starting to create hadn't really functioned that well with goals," Krueger said. "I thought we had a deserved first period, kind of like the fruit of the labor from the week before almost seemed to pay off."
Video: Condensed Game: Devils @ Sabres
Jack Eichel (1+2) and Johan Larsson (0+3) both had three-point games. Conor Sheary scored a pair of goals in the first period, while Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Asplund, Victor Olofsson, and Henri Jokiharju all found the back of the net. Asplund's was the first goal of his NHL career.
Linus Ullmark made 44 saves for his third win in his past four outings.
The game was reminiscent of the Sabres' outburst against the Devils in their home opener, a 7-2 victory that also featured a pregame ceremony and saw the Sabres wear their commemorative golden jerseys.
The Sabres have seen highs and lows since then, from an 8-1-1 start to a lull during the first half of November. Their recent play, beginning with a hard-fought loss to Boston on Nov. 21 and continuing through a stretch of five games in seven days last week, has them believing they're headed in the right direction.
"The language within the room is we really feel like we've settled into a game that's pretty consistent without the puck and that's what all the hard work was about, was making sure that we understand what we need to do defensively to be strong as a team and give ourselves a chance every night," Kreuger said.
"Now it looks like habits are starting to show up versus always having to process every single step during a game. It's happening more naturally now and that does definitely free you up on the offensive side. Hopefully we can continue to build on this feel thing we have now."
The win marks Buffalo's second straight home performance of at least six goals, following a 6-4 victory over Toronto on Friday. It's the first time they've strung together two such home games since Feb. 5 and 13, 2011, the latter of which featured a hat trick from Drew Stafford.
That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the numbers in this game. Let's break them down.
• Eichel opened the scoring with his team-leading 17th goal of the season, extending his point streak to 10 games. He's tied for the NHL lead with nine goals since his streak began on Nov. 16.
Video: NJD@BUF: Eichel beats Domingue from the low slot
He went on to tally assists on goals by Olofsson and Jokiharju, marking yet another three-point outing for the Sabres captain. Eichel has seven such games this season, one behind league leaders Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers.
• Skinner buried a wrist shot to make it 2-0, his 11th goal of the season. All those goals have come at 5-on-5, placing him in a tie for fourth in the NHL. The three players ahead of him: Brad Marchand (15), Draisaitl (13), and David Pastrnak (13).
• Sheary ended a 19-game scoring drought with his two-goal performance. He buried the rebound of a Skinner attempt for his first, which made it 3-0 at the 6:57 mark.
Video: NJD@BUF: Sheary capitalizes on juicy rebound
"It was good to get it out of the way early tonight," Sheary said. "Although I've been struggling to score, I think I've been doing a lot of good things and our line's had some chemistry so it was only a matter of time, and I got some puck luck tonight."
Less than 10 minutes later, Sheary rushed down the right side and took a shot that deflected high off Domingue's blocker, sailed over the goaltender's head, and fell into the net behind him.
• Larsson tallied assists on all three goals from Skinner and Sheary, marking the second three-point outing of his career. The first came on March 11, 2015 at Toronto.
It was an overdue outburst from the trio of Skinner, Larsson, and Sheary, which has now been on the ice for 26 scoring chances for compared to 11 against at 5-on-5 (according to NaturalStatTrick.com).
Sheary credited Larsson's defensive presence with helping free up him and Skinner offensively.
"I think when you know you have a responsible center on the ice, maybe it's easier to take a little bit of a chance up ice and try to push their D back," Sheary said. "But I think just all together we've just been connected all over the ice. One guy's in on the forecheck, the other guy's right there, and I think we're just reading off each other pretty well."
• Speaking of overdue, Asplund had seen several chances go unfulfilled in search of his first NHL goal. He had rung posts, seen shots robbed and, perhaps most notably, had an unsuccessful penalty shot in the final second of the win over Toronto last Friday.
Asplund had his parents in town from Sweden until Tuesday, meaning this was his last chance to score with them in the building. So, when he was set up by Casey Mittelstadt for a one-timer in the last minute of the first period, he shot hard and was sure not to miss.
Video: NJD@BUF: Asplund fires home wrister for first goal
"It's a relief, of course," he said. "I think I've been playing really well the last couple games. I'm creating a lot of chances. I knew it was close and I got it today. It was a great feeling."
• Asplund's goal chased Domingue, who was replaced by Mackenzie Blackwood after allowing five goals on 15 shots. It didn't stop the Sabres from scoring.
Olofsson struck with a one-timer just 4:40 into the second period. The puck was shot so hard, it took the crowd a few seconds to celebrate.
"I didn't even realize it myself," Olofsson said. "But, eventually, I felt like it must be in the net."
Video: NJD@BUF: Olofsson pots thunderous one-time slapper
With the goal, Olofsson has recorded points in 11 of his last 13 games dating back to Nov. 8. He has five goals and 10 points at even strength in that span.
• One more area that was due for a breakout: the Sabres' power play, which was 1-for-37 in 14 games entering Monday. They debuted new looks on both units, including Jokiharju manning the point in a group with Eichel, Skinner, Olofsson, and Sam Reinhart.
It paid off in the second period, when Olofsson set up Jokiharju for a booming one-timer from the point. The goal was the third of the defenseman's young career and his first on the power play.
"The last couple of weeks we think we've been playing pretty good hockey," Sheary said. "We haven't gotten a lot of results and part of that is because of secondary scoring. The other part is special teams and both of those were good tonight. Hopefully that will give us confidence moving forward."
The Sabres open their three-game road trip through Western Canada in Calgary on Thursday. Coverage on MSG begins at 8:30 p.m. with puck drop scheduled for 9.