NHL Column: The Surging Sabres

 Buffalo Sabres forward Jeff Skinner (53) celebrates his game-winning goal following the overtime period against the San Jose Sharks, in Buffalo N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Buffalo Sabres forward Jeff Skinner (53) celebrates his game-winning goal following the overtime period against the San Jose Sharks, in Buffalo N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

It has been seven long years for fans of the Buffalo Sabres. Their team has missed the playoffs each season since 2010-11. And in the last five years, they have not finished higher than seventh in the Atlantic Division.

But finally there is promise for a return to relevance. The Sabres, as of Wednesday, sat atop the entire NHL with 36 points through 25 games. With it, giddiness is growing in the snowy city of Buffalo.

The sports success in the city in recent years has mostly resembled the grim weather in the region, with the Sabres and Bills consistently failing. However, the energy and passion is back in the city as some young superstars emerge for the club. They are becoming icons in Buffalo, building the foundation of an eventual hockey dynasty.

It may be a little early in the season to declare the Sabres a hockey powerhouse, given that the season is barely a quarter of the way over. But it obvious the talent is present for the Sabres to be able to win for years to come.

After finishing with the league’s worst record last year, the Sabres won the draft lottery and selected Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who was the consensus top choice. That set the wheels in motion for a resurgence from the franchise.

Over the summer, Buffalo acquired speedster Jeff Skinner from the Carolina Hurricanes, giving them an additional scoring threat. Skinner is tied for the league lead in goals with 19, and has scored five in his last four games. He also has two overtime winners including one against the San Jose Sharks Tuesday night that sent the Sabres to their 10th straight victory.

Skinner has slotted in perfectly on the team’s tops line alongside Jack Eichel, who is the newly appointed captain in Buffalo this year. Eichel, at just 22 years old, is the foundational piece of the organization. The former second overall pick has found magic with Skinner, as he leads the team with 28 points.

Some of Buffalo’s more under-the-radar trades have made a difference in reshaping the team’s offensive depth too. They brought in Conor Sherry from Pittsburgh who has eaten about 15 minutes a night. They also dealt Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues in a deal that brought UConn alum Tage Thompson to Buffalo. Despite being scratched for some games earlier in the season, he has now settled in beautifully with the club, contributing four points over the last five contests. He has played a key role, slotting in as second line scoring winger at times this season.

But the biggest boost has come from netminder Carter Hutton. Before this year, the Sabres had not had a reliable goalie since Ryan Miller. Hutton has restored the backend with his solid play. His performance is what has pushed the Sabres over the edge to make them a legitimate playoff contender.

But will they be just a playoff contender or something even more? Their 10-game winning streak has lifted them to the top of the league, but it will be tough to fend off the highly powered Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning to win the Atlantic. Not to mention, the very strong Boston Bruins and surprising Montreal Canadiens will make it difficult for them.

So early in the year, nothing can be guaranteed, but it is certain that Buffalo is for real. It is just a matter of how good they truly are.

The Sabres have some major tests coming up as they attempt to extend their streak beyond 10 games. They face off against their aforementioned division foes from Tampa Bay tonight. On Tuesday, they play Toronto as their proximate rivalry reignites with the rise of each team. With the making of their rosters, these three teams could command the Eastern Conference for many years. If any of them begin to find playoff success, they could eventually become dynasties. For the Sabres, as evidenced by their hot start, they could be a Cup contender quite soon.


Dylan Barrett is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.  He can be reached via email at dylan.barrett@uconn.edu.

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