By Bill Hoppe
The Sabres had experienced the anger and frustration before, winger Drew Stafford said. At home, against a tired, reeling opponent they should be throttling, they stumbled badly again early Tuesday, getting dominated by the Edmonton Oilers.
Instead of pouncing on the Oilers, who played a night earlier in Chicago and got into town about 2:30 am, the listless Sabres fell behind 1-0 as the visitors held a 9-0 and 12-2 shot advantage halfway through the opening period.
“It was the same thing. I think guys are sick of talking in here. We’re running out of things to say,” Stafford, who scored the go-ahead goal 14:34 into the third period, said after the Sabres rallied to an ugly win 4-3 inside the First Niagara Center. “It’s the same story. ‘Things aren’t going well. We got to be better. We got to do all this.’ We’re sick of talking. We knew we needed to go out there and be better.”
The Sabres did, ending their three-game losing streak in a less-than-convincing fashion before a mostly silent capacity crowd of 18,690 fans. Following Taylor Hall’s goal, Jason Pominville tied it at 1 later in the first period. Jordan Leopold put the Sabres up in the second period before Sam Gagner’s power-play goal knotted it.
“A couple of guys said some stuff in the room,” Sabres center Derek Roy said about the first intermission. “They were pretty angry about, ‘We got to jump on them. They played last night.’ I thought we did that in the second and third.”
Despite their triumph over the NHL-leading Blackhawks, the Oilers were ripe to be exploited. They had had lost three straight, seven of eight and seven consecutive road contests prior to Monday.
“After the second period, when it was 2-2, we’ve been in that situation before,” said Stafford, who had three points. “Like I said, guys are sick of talking. Just go out there and do it. We got rewarded because we put the work in. We got in the right places.”
Stafford was in the right place for the just his seventh goal and first in eight games, converting Roy’s pass in front at the top of the crease, the rare dirty goal the Sabres can’t seem to convert.
“I knew Drew was going to battle,” Roy said. “Those are the goals that haven’t been going in for us, just missed chances. We got to battle in front of the net and make things count.”
Nathan Gerbe’s breakaway score made it 4-2 at 16:38. Corey Potter got the Oilers within one at 18:10.
“After the second period,” Stafford said, “we knew we had a great chance to make a little bit of a statement here, hopefully start stringing a few of these together. It starts with one. Tonight was the night.”
More gritty goals in close will help. The Sabres have only 102 scores this year.
“When things aren’t going well, you’re not in front, you’re not getting pucks on net,” Stafford said. “It’s not going to get better. You have to work to put yourself in those situations. Eventually you’ll get rewarded. Finally, you get a break tonight.”
Don’t let four goals or the just Sabres’ ninth win inside the FNC fool you, though. Their second victory eight tries wasn’t very impressive.
“It wasn’t the prettiest thing at all,” Gerbe said. “But the biggest thing is we got it done.”
It all began with a wretched start.
“The first play we just went back and ripped it around the wall right to them,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “We weren’t even under duress.”
Ruff traced the sluggish first period to his line tinkering. He briefly separated leading scorers Pominville and Thomas Vanek, a rarity this season. Both have recently felt ill. Pominville started with Gerbe and Jochen Hecht. Vanek went beside Roy and Zack Kassian.
“I took a gamble on changing some lines, and I think when you do that it either works or creates indecision,” Ruff said. “I knew I was going to give it a shot, and it might’ve been the shortest version of changing lines I’ve had. But I thought once we went back to what we had the other night we got comfortable and played better.
“Some of that changing the lines created that indecision. I’ll take that first 10 minutes on my shoulders.”