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Sabres turn in another sound defensive effort in win over Islanders

Eichel tallies 2 assists in 3-1 win

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

Kyle Okposo said Tuesday morning that the Buffalo Sabres would need to acknowledge that their chances might be limited against the New York Islanders, but be ready to capitalize when they did come. 

Sure enough, the Sabres had just 21 shots when Johan Larsson found the puck on his stick behind the Islanders net late in the third period, with Okposo racing toward the slot.

Okposo's shot trickled between the pads of Islanders goalie Robin Lehner and Larsson pushed it over the goal line with 2:25 remaining to put the finishing touches on a 3-1 win for the Sabres at KeyBank Center. The Sabres' alternate captain pointed out afterward that the play was initiated with a defensive-zone breakup. 

"We just wanted to play hard in the D-zone, make sure that we were locking down our own zone," Okposo said. "I was able to tip a pass up to the point. I'm just thinking get it out at that point, let my two linemates go to work."

Video: Eichel, Sabres down Islanders in 3-1 victory

The Sabres have now allowed five goals in their last three contests after surrendering 17 goals in their previous three games.They earned a 3-1 win over Detroit on Saturday, then surrendered a late goal to break a third-period tie in a 3-1 loss to Winnipeg on Sunday.

Although they were frustrated with the outcome against the Jets, they didn't let it deter them from maintaining the same tight-checking, detail-oriented style of play against an Islanders team that had allowed a league-best 2.33 goals per game entering Tuesday. 
It proved to be a winning recipe, combined with a 24-save performance from Linus Ullmark and a two-point night from captain Jack Eichel, who set up goals for Jeff Skinner and Jason Pominville. 

"I think they're one of the better teams defensively in the league," Pominville said. "They clogged it up pretty good in the neutral zone and I thought we did a pretty good job, too. They had a push in the third, but we defended hard for most of the game.

"The chances were pretty tight, tough to earn opportunities. Those are playoff-type games. Those are the games that you want to find a way to win. It's nice to come out on top of that."

Players were blunt about the need for a better respect of the defensive zone after an overtime loss to Carolina on Thursday. Okposo said the nature of the goals they allowed in that game and the two that preceded it - many of which uncontested shots near their net - served as a wakeup call.

The Sabres have bought into that message in the three games since. They allowed 25 shots to the Islanders and blocked 14. 

"It's good to see," Eichel said. "There's a lot of desperation to get the puck out of our own end. I think we can still clean some things up where we're giving teams some second and third opportunities and in terms of when we're breaking the puck out, we're giving it back to them and we're getting caught out there a little bit.

"But I think we can all agree that when guys do get caught out there and they get cycled that guys are desperate. We're working hard to keep the puck out of our net. I think our goalies have played very well the last three games and it's a team effort. It's good to see."

Ullmark was there to bail the Sabres out when the Islanders made their late push, including a breakaway stop on Cal Clutterbuck to preserve the one-goal lead before Larsson added the extra cushion.

Video: NYI@BUF: Ullmark stops Clutterbuck on a breakaway

"Whenever the opportunity comes and they have a breakaway or whatever, obviously I want to save every one," Ullmark said. "Luckily, I kept the puck out of the net today."

The Sabres have a chance to take nine of the available 14 points on their seven-game homestand with a win in the finale against the New York Rangers on Friday. 

"Any team's a good team when they play well defensively and when they play with structure," Pominville said. "When you get away from it, you hand free opportunities and you don't make them earn their breakouts, it makes any team easier to play against.

"I thought we got away from that for a little bit. Now, we're trending in the right direction. We've got one more at home here so hopefully we can carry on and then go on the road and keep this thing going."


Eichel stays hot

Eichel extended his point streak to six games (2+6) for the third time this season and became just the second Sabre in the last 20 years to require 53 or fewer games to reach the 60-point mark, according to NHL PR. The other was Danny Briere, who hit 60 in 51 games in 2006-07.

Eichel won the offensive-zone draw that led to Skinner's goal, which opened the scoring with 3:35 remaining in the first period. The captain won the faceoff to Skinner, who utilized a pick from Pominville to free himself for a shot from the top of the right circle for his 34th goal.

Video: NYI@BUF: Skinner pots tally with wicked wrister

"It's a good shot by him, it's a good pick by Pommer to give him a little bit of room and I think between Pommer, myself and their defensemen, I think [Lehner] is screened probably a little bit," Eichel said. "Skins does a good job getting his shot through and it's a big goal for our team."

After Casey Cizikas scored for New York to tie the game later in the first, Eichel showed his two-way ability when he forced a defensive-zone turnover that led to Pominville's winning goal at 6:49 in the second.

Eichel used his long reach to intercept a pass intended for the Islanders' Josh Bailey, then carried the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive end. He drew two defenders toward him along the left-wing wall, then delivered a perfect backhand pass to hit Pominville in stride at the net. 

Video: NYI@BUF: Pominville finishes feed from Eichel

"I just drove to the net," Pominville said. "I mean, what a pass by him. Not many guys can make that type of play on your backhand, and I was able to find a whole. But it starts with defending. Cause a turnover in the neutral zone, and off we go."

Eichel's 61 points (18+43) in 53 games are three shy of his career-high, which he set in 67 games last season.

"Jack's come a long way since I've been here," Okposo said. "He's playing extremely well for us. He's our leader for a reason."


Remembering Flight 3407

The team held a moment of silence prior to the game in memory of the 50 people who lost their lives when Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence Center, N.Y. on Feb. 12, 2009. 

The Sabres beat the San Jose Sharks on home ice less than 24 hours later, a 6-5 shootout victory that became an unforgettable moment for a community in healing. Brian Duff looked back on that night in remembrance of the victims prior to the game on Tuesday:

Video: Flight 3407 Tribute


Up next

The homestand continues against the New York Rangers on Friday night. Coverage on MSG-B begins at 6:30 p.m. with the GMC Game Night pregame show, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops at 7.

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