Don Granato handed the lineup card over, and Jacob Bryson took care of the rest.
In a scene captured by the team and posted on social media Saturday afternoon, Bryson sat at his stall in the Sabers’ dressing room and read off the starting lineup for the 80th game of the season. Each of the five nicknames were followed by loud clapping from teammates and a rousing, “Woo!”
There were smiles and laughs. The brief peek behind the curtain showed everyone what Granato and his players have told reporters in recent days. No one on the team wants the season to end.
The enthusiasm was displayed on the ice in KeyBank Center, too. The Sabers entertained the crowd of 12,955 with a relentless style of play that frustrated the New York Islanders and led to three goals in the second period of a 5-3 win.
“I think we’ve done a good job of just keeping going and playing our game,” said Sabers forward Casey Mittelstadt, who had six of Buffalo’s 35 shots on goal. “We don’t change anything. I thought we played well for pretty much the whole game tonight.”
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Buffalo (31-38-11) has won four straight – its longest win streak since the 10-game run in November 2018 – and five of its last six with two games remaining this season.
Mittelstadt, Rasmus Dahlin, Tage Thompson, Vinnie Hinostroza and Jeff Skinner were the goal-scorers in the penultimate home game. Dustin Tokarski made 19 saves and has helped the Sabers earn points in five of his last seven starts.
The regular season will end Friday night with a game in KeyBank Center against the Chicago Blackhawks, beginning what is expected to be a mostly uneventful offseason for the Sabers. But there’s a palpable excitement about the club’s short- and long-term outlook, a rarity in the final weeks of non-playoff seasons during this 11-year drought.
The Sabers’ 226 goals this season is their highest total since they last reached the playoffs with 240 in 2010-11. Entering the game, the club’s power play ranked first in the NHL since March 27 – it scored again with Dahlin’s slap shot from the point for a 2-1 lead at 1:17 into the second period Saturday – and it had totaled the fourth- most 5-on-5 goals. The Sabers were only 7-5-2 during that span and their 5-on-5 save percentage ranked 32nd.
Buffalo has totaled four or more goals in five of its last six games, including five goals in three straight.
“It’s tough to really put a single thing that’s given us success,” Skinner said. “I think every night it’s different. Sometimes it’s a combination of things. But the fact that it is consistent is probably the best thing for us to grab on to because it’s hard to be like that on a consistent basis.”
This isn’t the ceiling of the Sabers’ offense, either. Mittelstadt, for example, scored only his fifth goal of the season with a wrist shot on a 2-on-1 for a 1-0 lead. Mittelstadt missed 37 games with an injury that has prevented him from playing at 100%. He was their best player in training camp and an important part of the team’s future.
Continuity and health have led to a late-season breakthrough for the Sabers, whose .659 point percentage since a March 10th win over Vegas ranked 10th in the NHL following the game Saturday. They’re starting to produce at 5-on-5 in non-rush situations.
Thompson scored his 37th goal of the season, one more than Jack Eichel’s career best, on a short-side one-timer at even strength to make it 3-1 in the second period. The lead was pushed to 4-1 when Anders Bjork made a backhand pass to the slot, where Hinostroza collected the puck and scored his 13th goal of the season on a high shot from in tight.
“I think it’s been huge, just finding some chemistry,” Mittelstadt said of lineup continuity. “Obviously there’s the setup and then there’s so many broken plays that just come with time and chemistry. We’re starting to make a lot of those plays. “
Of the Sabers’ 18 skaters in the lineup Saturday, not including Tokarski, only Hinostroza is a pending unrestricted free agent. The average age of the six defensemen was slightly above 22 years old.
Dahlin’s goal against the Islanders, his 13th of the season, moved him into a tie for seventh among all NHL defensemen. He’s authored the first 50-point season for a Sabers defenseman since Garry Galley in 1995-96.
The Islanders (35-33-10), a top defensive team prior to this injury-riddled season, made it a game with two goals in the third period. The Sabers quickly grabbed momentum again with Skinner scoring his 33rd of the season on a rebound during a broken play to help secure the win.
Mathew Barzal, Noah Dobson and Kieffer Bellows scored for the Islanders, who had 11 shots on goal in the first 40 minutes of regulation.
For the first time in years, Sabers fans can have a long list of reasons to not want it all to end, either.
“I like where our team is,” Granato said. “We can present stuff to them pregame and they’re executing it so much more proficiently. That’s nice. They’re familiar with each other and personnel. They’re familiar with how we want to play and our identity.”
Here are other observations from the game:
The Islanders tied the score, 1-1, with 2:51 remaining in the first period when Barzal recorded only his third goal in 28 games. The primary assist was the highlight-reel play on the goal, as Dobson faked a slap shot from the point and sent the puck to Barzal in the left circle. The Sabers, including Tokarski, froze when Dobson made the pass, leaving the left side of the net empty for an easy goal.
The Islanders cut the deficit to 4-3 with two goals in a span of 1:37 in the third period, capped by Bellows tipping a shot that leaked through Tokarski with 9:38 remaining in regulation. Skinner secured the win with his goal less than three minutes later.
Zdeno Chara, Adam Pelech and Matt Martin tried to fight Skinner, who was assessed a 10-minute misconduct after the final skirmish of the game. Skinner irritated the Islanders from the start. When Martin went after Skinner at center ice in the third period, Thompson, Bryson and Owen Power came to Skinner’s defense.
“He’s one of my best friends and I’m pretty sure I would hate his guts on the other side,” Mittelstadt said with a laugh. “Like I said, we’re lucky to have him.”
• Winger John Hayden and center Cody Eakin, and defensemen Will Butcher, Mark Pysyk and Colin Miller were healthy scratches.
• Goalie Aaron Dell was recalled from Rochester prior to puck drop because Craig Anderson was unavailable to backup. Anderson’s status is “day to day,” according to coach Don Granato, but the soreness stemming from a minor injury isn’t thought to be serious. Anderson is expected to play one of the final two games of the season.
• With a primary assist on Mittelstadt’s goal, Kyle Okposo now has 45 points this season to tie his highest total since joining the Sabers in 2016-17.
• Victor Olofsson’s two assists Saturday give him five in two games and 21 points in his last 18 games.
• Power finished third on Buffalo in ice time (21:11) and skated on the power play late in regulation with the lead at 5-3.
The Sabers will play the Bruins in Boston’s TD Garden on Thursday night at 7 pm