Following an emotional two days spurred by a seven-game winless streak, Jack Eichel said the Buffalo Sabres needed to make a statement to themselves against the Edmonton Oilers at KeyBank Center on Friday night.
By the time the game was all said and done, the Sabres could finally exhale. Eichel, Jacob Josefson and Kyle Okposo scored goals and the Buffalo defense helped Robin Lehner take a shutout into the final minute of a 3-1 victory, their first since Nov. 7.
"It's one game, so obviously we need to carry this," Eichel said. "Seeing the way we could play tonight, I think more than anything it should be a bit of a boost to everyone in the room, a little confidence. When we play the right way, when we do the right things, it's rewarding. We've just got to try to find that consistency."
Video: Condensed Game: Oilers @ Sabres
The mood in the dressing room was a stark contrast to 48 hours prior, when a loss to the Minnesota Wild prompted a team meeting centered on player-to-player accountability. The conversations were difficult, but the idea was that they would make the team stronger in the long run.
Part of what was addressed in that meeting was players' tendencies to deviate from the game plan when games aren't going their way, opting instead to take matters into their own hands. Against Edmonton, the Sabres played a team game for 60 minutes and had their effort validated with a win.
"It was a great response," Sabres coach Phil Housley said. "This team's been through a lot in the short past here, it's been a lot of challenges, a lot of conversations. It's time to put things into action. I thought the guys responded well."
Housley said his team looked tentative at the start of the game, like a team that knew it hadn't won in seven tries. But players stayed the course, and eventually the game began to open up. The Sabres shot often, crashed the net and eventually took the lead with Josefson's goal late in the second period.
The goal, a one-time shot from the slot by Josefson on a feed from Okposo, was the end result of a string of strong shifts beginning with the line of Evander Kane, Eichel and Pominville.
Video: EDM@BUF: Josefson blasts one-timer past Brossoit
The goal was Josefson's first as a Sabre, and gave him two points in two games since returning from an ankle injury.
"That line's been really good for us the last two games," Housley said. "That was just a hardworking goal, a lot of grinding down in the offensive zone."
The Sabres added to their lead in the third period, when Eichel took a shot from the right wing boards that beat Oilers goalie Laurent Brossoit beneath his glove. Eichel was engaged throughout the night, breaking up a 2-on-1 rush on a back check in the first period and tallying six shot attempts.
Video: EDM@BUF: Eichel wires wrister past Brossoit
"In the last three games he's played really well," Housley said. "He's made a choice and he's trying to play the right way. He's been physical, he's been active in the offensive zone, he's been bringing speed which we continue to focus on through the neutral zone and he's getting a lot more looks right now just because of the way he's working. You can see he's very determined right now."
The Sabres were able to neutralize Oilers star Connor McDavid, meanwhile, thanks in large part to the defensive pair of Marco Scandella and Rasmus Ristolainen, the latter of whom returned from a nine-game absence. McDavid was held to three shot attempts and no points.
"We just tried to keep numbers ahead of him and above him, so we could affect him and slow him down through the neutral zone," Housley said. "I thought we did a really good job of that tonight. We didn't give a lot of space, especially on that attack, and our D did a terrific job when it was in the zone. A couple good shifts it was extended in our zone, and the guys just dug in which they need to do against good players."
The Oilers were kept off the board until Yohann Auvitu scored with 20 seconds remaining, by which point Okposo had already scored into an empty net to make it 3-0.
Lehner made 29 saves on 30 shots.
The win was a breath of fresh air for a team that had been caught in a rut, but focus in the room after the game was on replicating the performance in Montreal on Saturday. The Sabres have won back-to-back games just once this season, and Okposo said that consistency will be the true test of whether or not the lessons of this week have resonated with the team.
"I hope it resonated with everybody," Okposo said. "It certainly resonated with myself. There were a lot of things said in the last couple days in this locker room and we've got to grow up and mature and start playing a more mature game … Tonight we did a good job of that."
Housley said before the game that he didn't expect Ristolainen to have any restrictions on his ice time in his return from an upper-body injury, and he wasn't kidding. Ristolainen skated a game-high 27:32, including 4:26 on the power play and 4:11 on the penalty kill, and recorded two assists in the win.
Ristolainen's presence clogging passing lanes around the net was crucial for a 3-for-3 night on the penalty kill, and offensively he displayed a penchant for getting shots to the net. Five of his six shot attempts went on goal.
"I felt great," Ristolainen said. "I never really got to rest like this before. I didn't like it, but I kind of felt really good and my legs were fresh. That was a good start, I've got to keep going tomorrow night."
We also saw a glimpse of the shutdown potential of Scandella and Ristolainen as a defensive pair. Scandella skated 22:49 and had four shot attempts, often seeing ice time against McDavid.
"I think we can play in all situations," Ristolainen said. "He's a great player, it's really easy to play with him. Tonight our role was maybe to shut the other line down and if we get a chance we join the rush, so we played there too."
The Sabres blocked 22 shots in the game, including a team-high six from Ristolainen. Fellow defenseman Jake McCabe blocked five shots, while Scandella's four blocks included some crucial stops on the penalty kill.
"Sometimes if you're a little bit late you try to do whatever you can to try not to let them score," Ristolainen said. "That's a big key. We got a couple huge blocks on the penalty kill and that's what a winning team does."
The Sabres will complete their sixth back-to-back set of the season on the road in Montreal on Saturday night. The Sabres are 0-0-2 against the Canadiens this season, including a 2-1 overtime loss in their most recent matchup in Montreal on Nov. 11.
Coverage on Saturday begins at 6:30 p.m. with GMC Gamenight on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. Puck drop is schedule for just after 7 p.m.