BROOKLYN – With their sights set squarely on surpassing the 80-point mark, the Buffalo Sabres showed that they had one more fight in them on Saturday night. They took the lead three separate times, twice on the power of goals from their captain.
The final goal came 2:46 into overtime, after Mark Pysyk saw a stretch pass from Evan Rodrigues deflect off his stick toward the goal line. Pysyk chased it down and fed it to the captain Brian Gionta alone in front of the net, Gionta ended the season celebrating a 4-3 win over the New York Islanders.
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said that Gionta talked about scoring before the game, which he did to give Buffalo a 3-2 lead in the third period. Once John Tavares tied the game for the Islanders, it became apparent he'd need two.
"It's nice going out on a win to build some confidence," Gionta said. "We talked before; the last half of the year is how we want to start next year. We're a team that's grown a bit, matured a bit and hopefully we can carry that through."
Gionta's goals were his 11th and 12th of the season. Rodrigues also had two points with a goal and an assist – both the first of his career – and Matt Moulson also scored for the Sabres. Linus Ullmark earned the win in net with 21 saves.
Not only did the Sabres finish with 81 points at 35-36-11 – a 27-point improvement from last season and 29-point improvement from their 2013-14 campaign – they showed a glimpse of a playoff team over the last half of their season with 47 points in their last 41 games.
Expand that second-half performance over the course of a full season and you get 94 points. This season, that number would rank third in the Atlantic Division.
"Any time you don’t make the playoffs it's frustrating, there's no way around that," Gionta said. "When you sit back and look at it you've got to build off, like I said, the second half of the year … You look back 30, 20 games, we got better and better and better. That's where we want to build."
FIRST GOAL FOR E-ROD
Rodrigues was one of three players to score their first career goals in the game, along with Scott Mayfield and Alan Quine for the Islanders. His goal gave the Sabres' a 2-1 lead with 2:03 remaining in the second period.
Rodrigues caught a pass from Ryan O'Reilly at the blue line, cut to the middle of the ice and fired a shot that beat Islanders goalie Christopher Gibson to the far side. After he scored, his smile didn’t erode until long after he got back to the bench.
"I was like 'Whoa, what'd I do?'" Rodrigues said. "I think I jumped in the air after I scored. I was ecstatic. That's something I'll never forget. I don’t have any words to describe it."
He became the fifth Sabre to score his first NHL goal this season, joining Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Jake McCabe and most recently Hudson Fasching.
"He's got a lot of spunk and energy to his game but, yes, the big smile just like we saw with Hudson Fasching scoring his first goal," Bylsma said. "He played the whole game with a lot of energy … I thought he's played two really good games."
In a way, the season came full circle for Rodrigues. It was that energy that impressed Bylsma when Rodrigues came into his first camp as an undrafted rookie, and his two NHL games will serve as a benchmark as heads into the summer with his sights set on his second season.
"It pushes me just a little bit more, maybe something that I needed," he said. "Going into the summer I'm going to give it my all and I'm going to push myself as hard as I can push myself and come into camp ready to earn a spot on this team."
THE ROOKIE EIGHT
With Chad Johnson, Zach Bogosian and Johan Larsson all missing the game due to injury, the Sabres had eight rookies in their lineup on Saturday: Eichel, Reinhart, McCabe, Rodrigues, Fasching, Cole Schneider, Casey Nelson and Ullmark.
It was almost fitting in a season in which rookies made such a significant impact. Eichel and Reinhart finished the season ranking first and second on the team respectively with 24 and 23 goals, while only O'Reilly finished with more points (60). Eichel finished with 56, Reinhart with 42.
Eichel and Reinhart connected for one last time as rookies in the second period on Saturday, just three minutes after Mayfield had scored to give the Islanders a 1-0 lead. Reinhart forced a turnover at New York's blue line and passed the puck down to Eichel, who fed it across to set up Moulson's game-tying goal.
Reinhart's assist tied him with Calle Johansson and Pierre Turgeon for 18th-most by a Sabres rookie, while Eichel's tied him with Derek Plante for seventh most.
Ullmark, meanwhile, made his 20th appearance this season, making him the 11th rookie goaltender to reach that mark in franchise history.
"Looking back on the season I'm really happy with how I transitioned to the North American game," he said. "There are some things that I absolutely need to improve; I'm 22 turning 23 so there's a lot of things I need to work on. I've got a lot of time. I think we have something really good going on here."
With his assist on Rodrigues' goal, O'Reilly set a new career high with 39 and registered the second 60-point season of his career. He became the 13th player to record 60 points in his first season with the Sabres and the first to do so since Pat LaFontaine.
Rasmus Ristolainen became the only Sabres player to play in all 82 games this season. The defenseman set career highs in goals (nine), assists (32) and points (41) in his third NHL season and his 2073:01 of ice time ranked fifth in the League at game's end.
Finally, with his assist on Gionta's first goal in the second period, Josh Gorges now has 100 assists for his career. Gionta and Gorges have been teammates since the 2009-10 season, when they were with the Montreal Canadiens.
The Sabres will speak one more time during locker cleanout on Sunday morning. Bylsma and General Manager Tim Murray will hold season ending press conferences that will be streamed live on Sarbres.com Monday at 3 p.m.
As always, stay tuned into Sabres.com for coverage of both days and well as throughout the offseason.