The long climb to playoff contention has finally been realized. Now it’s up to the Buffalo Sabres to stay there.
Marcus Foligno scored the game winner early in the third period, as the Sabres won their fourth straight game with a 3-1 win over the Minnesota Wild at First Niagara Center on Saturday. Buffalo now has 84 points, and they own sole possession of eighth place in the Eastern Conference, two points ahead of the Washington Capitals. It’s the first time the Sabres finished the night in a playoff spot since December 19 – a span of 96 days.
The Sabres improved to 7-1-2 in their last 10, and are 18-5-5 in their last 28 games since a 4-2 loss in St. Louis on January 21. It’s also been more than two weeks since Buffalo lost a regulation game, going 6-0-2 following a 3-1 setback in Boston on March 8.
Head coach Lindy Ruff knows there’s still plenty of work left to be done over the final six games, starting with Tuesday’s huge game in Washington.
“We’ve got an opportunity to take a breather, get the guys some rest,” said Ruff. “(Sunday) will be a day off. I told them to get their minds off hockey and get some rest. Our next one coming up is a big one. But we’ll deal with that come Monday. We play one game in the next four days, and should be an opportunity to freshen up for this last little stretch drive.”
After falling behind 1-0 on a first period goal by Steven Kampfer, Buffalo evened the score at 1-1 just 72 seconds into the second on some hard work in the corner by rookie Corey Tropp. He pounded Minnesota defenseman Nate Prosser to spring the puck loose to Cody Hodgson, and his initial shot was stopped by Josh Harding. But Thomas Vanek fought through the crowd in front to backhand the puck into the right side of the net.
“Our goal going into the second period was to get pucks behind them, get in there and get a little bit dirty and finish your checks,” explained Tropp. “That’s how we were able to generate that first goal, and momentum kind of carried from there.”
Buffalo took the lead for good early in the third on the power play when Foligno camped himself in front of Harding and took a Tyler Myers shot off the shinpad that bounced into the Wild net 1:45 into the final stanza. It was Foligno’s sixth goal of the season, and 10th point in eight games since being recalled from Rochester on March 10.
Foligno joins an elite group of active players that have scored six or more goals in their first nine career games: Teemu Selanne (8), Evgeni Malkin (8), Devin Setoguchi (7), Ilya Kovalchuk (6) and Alex Ovechkin (6).
Despite adding to his impressive late season resume, Foligno was quick to criticize his own play in the game.
“It’s huge to contribute. I didn’t have the best game, but it was good to get that goal,” said Foligno. “Just the way me, Stafford and Ennis have been playing, I don’t think I created enough for those guys tonight. But games like that are gonna happen, and it was good to rebound and get that one in the third.”
Hodgson capped off the scoring with his 19th of the season into an empty net as time expired.
Ryan Miller stopped 24 shots to earn his 29th win of the season, including 15 of 16 in the first period. He is 13-1-4 over his last 18 games; and 18-3-5 since January 24. Miller has started eight in a row, and 18 of Buffalo’s last 19 games.
The Sabres next take to the ice on Tuesday in Washington against the Capitals. Game time is 7 p.m. That will be followed by back-to-back games on Friday at home against Pittsburgh; and in Toronto next Saturday against the Maple Leafs.
1-0 MIN: Kampfer bangs home his second of the year off a saucer pass from Brodziak in the slot (6:50)… Shots: MIN-16, BUF-11
1-1: Vanek forces his way through a crowd in front and backhands the rebound past Harding after a forecheck started by Tropp (1:12)… Shots: MIN-5, BUF-17
2-1 BUF: Foligno slides into the slot and tips Myers point shot behind Harding (1:45, PP)… 3-1 BUF: Cody Hodgson scores a buzzer-beating empty netter from the right wing to cap the scoring (19:59)… Shots: MIN-4, BUF-9
SABRES NOTES: Buffalo has outscored their opposition 17-5 over the last four games… Tonight’s game finished off Buffalo’s 20th set of a league-high 21 sets of back-to-back games. They are now 7-8-5 in the second game, and 13-7-0 in the first. It’s the fourth time this season they have claimed all four points in back-to-back games… Mike Weber (healthy), Patrick Kaleta (upper body), Nathan Gerbe (upper body) and Matt Ellis (knee) were Buffalo’s scratches.