BUFFALO, N.Y. — So much of the Sabres’ Thanksgiving eve game against the St. Louis Blues was about the past. For the first time since the 2005-06 season, the Sabres wore their black-and-red jerseys. It was ’90s night at the arena, and the near-sellout crowd brought an energy that felt like a throwback to a bygone era when the Sabres were consistently in the playoffs.
Before the game, coach Don Granato said the team talked about the history of the jersey. The energy of the crowd reminded Granato of his days coming to Buffalo as a pro scout.
“It’s much more than a jersey,” Granato said. “It’s an era. It’s a pretty, pretty cool era.”
Once the puck dropped, the Sabres provided a glimpse of what a future era could look like if their young roster can turn the corner. One night after snapping their eight-game losing streak with a 7-2 win over the Canadiens, the Sabres delivered another dominant performance and beat the Blues 6-2. Like they did against the Canadiens, the Sabres started early. Jeff Skinner roofed a shot from an odd angle at the goal line and scored 18 seconds into the game. He later scored a power-play goal and boosted his point total to seven in the past two games.
But the Sabres didn’t just lean on their top line. Yes, Skinner was sensational, and the top power-play unit scored with a Victor Olofsson goal. But the Sabres also got this win with a goalie, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, stopping 34 of 36 shots in his 15th NHL start. They did it with Jack Quinn, who turned 21 in September, having the first multi-goal game of his NHL career. Tage Thompson and Rasmus Dahlin, who have become the stars who carry this team most nights, didn’t record a point, but the rest of the lineup was more than capable of producing.
“The energy,” Granato said, “was great.”
That hadn’t been the case during Buffalo’s losing streak. Injuries forced lesser players up the lineup, and as the losses piled up, Granato said the streak interfered with the team’s psyche. With the past two games, the Sabres managed to put that losing skid out of their mind and improve to 9-11 with the surging New Jersey Devils coming to town Friday.
1. Quinn has been overdue to score. Tuesday against Montreal, he had 12 shot attempts at five-on-five and put six of them on net. Against the Blues, he had another 10 shot attempts. In the third period, he finally put one in the back of the net.
He was charging down the ice on a two-on-one and hit the brakes to stall the defenseman. After seeing the passing lane wasn’t there, he fired a shot that squeaked through goalie Jordan Binnington. It wasn’t pretty, but the relief on Quinn’s face was obvious as he raised his arms to the crowd.
“He’s all over the ice and has been getting so many chances lately,” Dylan Cozens said. “Maybe it’s a little frustrating when they’re not going in and you’re hitting posts. And then I just told him to stick with it; they’re going to come. Once he scored one, I said, ‘You’re going to score again.’”
Sure enough, Quinn scored again. It was another two-on-one, and he held the puck just long enough to pull Binnington out of position and deke around him for the goal that put the Sabres up 6-2.
Just Cozey being Quinner’s ultimate hype man ?#LetsGoBuffalo pic.twitter.com/OYYmB3rWSQ
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) November 24, 2022
“He’s a great player,” Cozens said. “He’s a goal scorer. He’s going to score a lot of goals in this league. I’m excited to play alongside him.”
Granato mentioned before the game that Quinn has spent a lot of extra time watching video with the assistant coaches. He’s been a healthy scratch for a few games and was also out of the lineup recently because of an injury. Granato has been adamant that the time out of the lineup can benefit a young player like Quinn.
“It’s situational awareness, and he’s picked it up fast, to the point where now it’s second nature to him,” Granato said. “It doesn’t break his confidence. He reads a play quicker. He reads danger quicker. He reads opportunity quicker. And he’s gained more comfort as a result. So that’s a process that he’s been very engaged in.”
Said Quinn: “Just little details. Not trying to score when I go out there. Just try to make the reads, compete, win battles, and the chances will come. Just trying to play an all-around game. That goes a long way.”
For the season, Quinn’s expected goals for per 60 minutes is fourth on the team behind Thompson, Skinner and Cozens. He smiled when asked whether these goals could help him get on a roll and said, “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
“Sometimes the offense comes on its own,” Quinn said. “But learning to play at the NHL level in all aspects is a growing process for me.”
2. Quinn isn’t creating all of these chances on his own. Since Granato put him with Cozens and JJ Peterka, the results have been encouraging. Peterka set up Cozens for a goal on an odd-man rush Wednesday. That trio accounts for 70 percent of the expected goals when it’s on the ice, according to Natural Stat Trick.
“It feels like we have a ton of chemistry,” Quinn said. “We all want to play together. We’re having a ton of fun out there, and just trying to keep getting better and better. We’re a young line, so we’re just going to try to keep building on it.”
Like Quinn, Cozens is 21, and Peterka is 20. If those three can provide a consistent scoring threat as the second line behind Thompson, Skinner and Alex Tuch, it could change the way this lineup plays from night to night. Cozens embraces the leadership role even at such a young age.
“I think we have a very special opportunity to do something special with us three being so young,” Cozens said. “I told those guys, ‘We can play together for the next 10, 15 years and build some crazy chemistry.’ It’s exciting to all play together at this age with how young we are and keep growing together. I’m excited to see what we can do in the future, for sure.”
3. Luukkonen took full advantage of his opportunity Wednesday. At multiple points, he stood tall against a barrage of Blues activity in the Sabres’ end. The crowd chanted his name several times throughout the game, and his teammates awarded him player of the game in the dressing room despite two players having multi-goal games. Luukkonen faced 14 high-danger shots and turned 12 of them aside.
“He made some big saves at big moments,” Skinner said. “I think that’s what you need.”
Always hug your goalie ☺️#BudLightCelly | @budlight pic.twitter.com/revDrrs3P3
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) November 24, 2022
Luukkonen’s performance creates an interesting dynamic in the Sabres’ net. With Eric Comrie on injured reserve, Luukkonen will get an extended audition splitting the net with Craig Anderson. Given Anderson’s age, Luukkonen should see plenty of games. But it will take more than one strong performance from Luukkonen to convince the Sabres to alter their goalie plan. With Comrie and Anderson healthy, the Sabres need to carry three goaltenders to keep Luukkonen on the roster. It’s a tricky situation.
That’s a conversation for another day. Right now, Luukkonen has a chance to show what he can do. The home fans and his teammates are enjoying the show.
“We loved it,” Quinn said of the crowd chanting for Luukkonen. “We were joining in a little on the bench. He’s a stud back there. He’s a big guy, super athletic. I’ve been able to play with him for the last two years, so I know how good he is. It’s no surprise he’s playing that well.”
4. Skinner has been a pain to play against in the past two games. Not only does he have seven points, including a pair of two-goal games, but he’s also been loud in jawing with officials and opponents. He has a competitive drive that hasn’t been a consistent presence throughout his career but is a major boost to his team when it’s there. Granato said if he can hear Skinner chirping with referees and opposing players, it’s usually a good sign he’s on his game.
“That’s kind of the barometer,” Granato said. “When we see him with that emotional energy just bursting out — and I usually get a warning from the officials — and there’s a lot of barking going back to the opposing bench, you know he’s on his game. That’s when he’s at his best. He’s fully engaged, and his competitiveness just rises in those situations. When that happens, you see the talent. It’s almost coincidental.”
It’s tough to overstate what a crucial part of the team Skinner can be when he’s willing to be a pest in addition to a skilled scorer.
(Photo of Jack Quinn: Ben Green / NHLI via Getty Images)