Sabres lose to Devils, but Lindy Ruff sees Buffalo as a team that’s ‘a lot like us’


BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres have been streaky to start the 2022-23 NHL season. Their 7-3 start was quickly erased by an eight-game losing streak that put them back near the bottom of the league standings. They followed that up with two straight wins in which they combined for 13 goals before welcoming the New Jersey Devils to town on Friday night. Through it all, Don Granato has maintained his steadfast belief in the team’s players but has also been clear that this group of players hasn’t lost any belief in what they are capable of.

It’s easy for young teams to point to potential and learning experiences and a day off in the future when all the struggles will be worth it. That doesn’t always come to fruition, but the Sabres only needed to walk across the hallway on Friday to find a group of players who have turned that corner. The Devils recently ripped off a 13-game winning streak before losing to the Toronto Maple Leafs. That loss didn’t knock them off course, as they came into Buffalo on Friday and dominated the Sabres for stretches of play in a 3-1 win.

“The way (the Devils) played, you could’ve gotten run out of the building — any team could’ve tonight,” Granato said. “They’re a team that’s feeling it right now.”

Not long ago, though, the Devils were in a similar position to the Sabres. A year ago, New Jersey had the youngest roster in the NHL. The Devils have missed the playoffs for four straight seasons and haven’t topped 72 points in any of those years. Yet right now, they look like one of the best teams in the NHL.

“They’ve got a lot of swagger right now,” Granato said.

How did a 63-point team from a year ago reverse course so quickly? It doesn’t hurt that their young talent is continuing to ascend. Jack Hughes scored his eighth goal of the season, while Nico Hischier now has 23 points in 20 games. Both were No. 1 overall picks for New Jersey. The Devils are also getting a strong rebound season from defenseman Dougie Hamilton and have a much more stable goaltending situation than they did a season ago due to the addition of Vitek Vanecek over the offseason.

Those are all factors, but it’s tough to ignore the impact of the veterans the Devils sprinkled throughout their lineup. Tomas Tatar, signed in 2021, scored again Friday and now has five goals and 13 points. The team brought in Erik Haula, who is playing in the top six, and Brendan Smith, who contributes to a defensive group that Granato called “dominant” on Friday. Haula and Smith came with more than 1,000 games of NHL experience combined. They also signed Ondrej Palat. He had three goals in the team’s first six games but needed surgery on his injured groin and has been out since.

The result for New Jersey is a deep team that is balanced in its scoring and relentless in its attack. Through two periods on Friday, the Devils had 13 scoring chances to the Sabres’ five at five-on-five, according to Natural Stat Trick. They had 55 shot attempts to the Sabres’ 30. The Sabres brought a frantic energy to the third period, outshooting the Devils and getting more high-danger chances. The Devils were too much for the Sabres for long stretches of this game.

“They’re a young, energetic team that hit a groove and hit a rhythm,” Granato said. “They went on a roll. Their talent, their young guys keep getting better and better. I talk a lot about here, at some point you’re going to hit a threshold and you’re going to break that threshold. All of that struggle becomes easy and you win more and more. They had been nudging toward that and they’ve hit it. With that maturity, they’re playing a lot more aggressive and assertive than they were a year ago.”

Added Victor Olofsson: “They’re a fast team, I think kind of similar to us. They play with a lot of skill. And like I said, I think they just were faster than us in the first and we kind of had to work our way into the game.”

That’s exactly the recipe the Sabres are searching for. Friday night showed the gap that exists between these two teams. But across the hall, Devils coach Lindy Ruff, who coached the Sabres for a decade, was quick to point out that Buffalo is following a similar formula.

“You look at the Sabres team and you look at a group that’s a lot like us,” Ruff said before the game. “All of a sudden they’re just going to find the right groove. It could be weeks away. It could be a month away. It could be tomorrow. Maybe the two games they’ve won right now is the stepping stone. But it’s a young group with a lot of creativity. If you have a team that’s scoring 13 goals in two games, you’re doing a lot of good things.”

Granato said this group of Sabres players doesn’t need to look outside of itself to gain confidence or validate the direction of the rebuild. Granato and general manager Kevyn Adams made a decision to join a group of teams, including the Devils, that was in the process of getting younger.

“They are very determined and confident that they can do it. We’re trying to get them to do it faster. Their conviction is strong. Our guys know they’re going to break the threshold.”

That moment hasn’t come yet. With the loss on Friday night, the Sabres are now 9-12 and ahead of only Columbus and Ottawa in the Eastern Conference. They’re getting healthier now, though, and have pulled out of their eight-game losing streak looking like an improved team over the last three games.

“It was nice to see the guys that once you put your mind to something and really bear down, that’s some of the success you can have,” captain Kyle Okposo said. “I think we just need to be a little bit stronger mentally and we’re going to be fine.”

(Top photo: Timothy T. Ludwig / USA Today)


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