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Sabres rebound with strong defensive outing in win over Red Wings

Ullmark sets a franchise record; Power play stays hot

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

It was a scene that Buffalo Sabres fans are all too familiar with: Thomas Vanek lurking near the crease late in the third period, looking to cash in on a rebound after a shot bounced off Linus Ullmark. 

In order to get to that rebound, Vanek would first have to go through Rasmus Ristolainen. The 6-foot-4 defenseman acted as a wall in front of the Buffalo net, jostling the former Sabre to the ground while Ullmark covered the puck. 

It wasn't a play that will show up on the highlights - there were those, too - but it was the one that came to Ullmark's mind when describing the defensive effort that earned the Sabres a 3-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday. 

"Risto does a terrific job of boxing the guy out and I just laid my glove on top of it," Ullmark said. "We can get a whistle, get the guys changed. It's just one of those small plays people don't really notice it. It's because nothing fancy happened. 

"It's just me putting the glove on top of the puck. But it was what happened before that that enabled me to do it."

Coming off a pair of games in which they allowed a combined 10 goals, the Sabres rallied behind coach Phil Housley's message of defensive awareness for all three periods against the Red Wings. They were outshot, 29-21, but kept most of the Red Wings' attempts to the outside while making sure to prevent second-chance opportunities. 

The Sabres also blocked 14 shots, including five apiece from Ristolainen and Marco Scandella.

"I thought the guys responded really well," Housley said. "I thought we did a much better job in front of our net and when they did get to the interior [our] guys tied them up and we were able to box them out to give Linus a good line of sight to the puck. … It was a big improvement from last game."

 

Buffalo combined that inspired defensive effort with another productive night from its resurgent power play, which received goals from Kyle Okposo and Casey Mittelstadt, to extend its point streak to three games (2-0-1). Conor Sheary also scored. 

Ullmark, making his fourth start in five games, made 28 saves, including a breakaway stop on Andreas Athanasiou while protecting the two-goal lead with 8:02 remaining in the third period. Detroit's lone goal was scored by Dylan Larkin, a wrap-around on the power play that made it 2-1 in the second.

Video: DET@BUF: Ullmark denies Athanasiou's breakaway bid

"We mostly talked about how we've got to clean up our own end, and I thought we did a terrific job back there," Ullmark said. "In other words, we didn't give them anything. When we did give them something, we recovered very well."

The victory was a strong response to what Housley admitted was an emotional overtime loss on Thursday night, when the Sabres dropped a point to a Hurricanes team they had been tied with in the standings. 

It ended with a gut-check effort - the Sabres were down two men with Scandella in the box for high-sticking and Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard on the bench. Evan Rodrigues was on the ice without a stick, but still dived to break up a pass through the middle. 

"I think they refocused, but the thing for me is that's a tight group in there," Housley said. "They care for each other. Our coaching staff has done a great job. I think it just brought us tighter together, the things that went on. 

"You could see in the effort tonight - we're going to need a really good effort tomorrow - but we're going to take this and really learn from what we did well. One of those things is coming together."

 

More success for the power play

Buffalo is now 5-for-10 on the power play since the beginning of February after receiving goals from Mittelstadt and Okposo on Saturday. Mittelstadt credited the increased production to players' tenacity on the forecheck.

"I think it's a mix of everything," he said. "I think we're moving the puck really well and taking shots when they're there. I think what we did really well tonight was working on recovery, getting the puck back. I think before my goal they had a chance to get it out three or four times, and we had guys there. 

"Same thing on Okie's goal, just a good job getting the puck back and then getting the puck to the net. I guess when you start shooting, they go in."

Mittelstadt's goal was the product of a seeing-eyed pass through traffic from Jack Eichel, who faked a shot before finding Mittelstadt on the opposite flank. It was the sort of pass one might not expect to make its way through the middle of the ice, had they not known who it was coming from.

"I mean, yeah, I guess if it's Jack you do," Mittelstadt said. "I saw the D kind of flex out and the way he wound up to kind of fake a one-timer looked like it was coming my way. I lost it for a sec, it was behind of one their guys, but it got to me and obviously it was a pretty lucky goal, but I'll take it for sure."

Video: DET@BUF: Mittelstadt nets PPG from the circle

Sam Reinhart was in his office, draping Howard with a net-front screen, on Okposo's goal, which restored Buffalo's two-goal lead with 31 seconds remaining in the second period.

Video: DET@BUF: Okposo scores PPG through screen

"It's nice to get a two-goal lead there going into the third," Okposo said. "You're able to play a little bit. You're just really hammering your structure in the third period. You're not taking too many chances, you're just trying to lock the game down and we were able to do that."

 

Sabre-metrics

•   Conor Sheary now has points in eight of his last 10 games (2+6), while Mittelstadt extended his career-best point streak to four games (1+3). Housley praised the trio of Sheary, Mittelstadt and Reinhart after the win.

"That line, for me, has been really tenacious," Housley said. "The chemistry is forming. They're getting some opportunities now. A lot more offensive zone faceoffs. I think they just read off each other very well."

•   Evan Rodrigues earned the secondary assist on Okposo's goal, extending his point streak to three games (2+1) and giving him 10 points (6+4) in his last 12 outings.

"I'm not going to lie. I'm pretty confident right now," Rodrigues said. "I think I want the puck on my stick every chance I can get it. It's a nice feeling."

•   Ullmark improved to 21-18-6 with a .914 save percentage through 50 career appearances. That save percentage is the best by any goaltender who played his first 50 games with Buffalo, according to Sabres PR. 

 

Up next

The homestand continues with a visit from the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday. Coverage on MSG-B begins at 2:30 p.m. with the GMC Game Night pregame show, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops at 3. 

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