BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Dylan Cozens scored at 1:46 into overtime to lead the Sabres to their first win of the season, 3-2 against the Lightning on Tuesday night in front of 12,590 spectators at KeyBank Center.
Jeff Skinner and Zemgus Girgensons had goals in the first period, Devon Levi made 23 saves and the Sabres avoided opening with three losses for the first time in six seasons after surrendering a two-goal lead.
“That would be frustrating to lose that game,” Cozens said. “But those are the type of games we need to win. Low scoring, gritty games and games where we just find a way.”
“Who wants to win normally?” Levi said. “Let’s make it more interesting.”
Trapped by opposing defensive tactics in two losses to begin the 2023-24 campaign, Buffalo embraced more open-ice opportunities against injury-depleted Tampa Bay, the first Atlantic Division foe on the schedule, generating a 31-22 advantage in shots on goal.
Equaling their scoring output from the first two games, the Sabres got goals from three players who had yet to find the back of the net this season.
“We come into this game 0-2 but I felt our guys were very in tune and in the moment and they’re feeling better about their game and getting more in rhythm assist, which is something that all players need,” coach Don Granato said.
Cozens, who was fourth on the Sabres with 31 goals as the second-line cetner last season, tallied his second career OT goal. Skating off the bench, Cozens got the puck from Jordan Greenway inside the blue line, skated into the high slot and around former Sabre Conor Sheary before ringing a shot from the right circle in off the post.
Despite the overtime shifts, Cozens’ time on the ice (11:36) was lower than any game he played last season.
“I know I haven’t played my best hockey yet,” Cozens said, “but I know it’s coming.”
Skinner’s goal from the left edge of the crease, set up by a deft long pass from Owen Power, was the first from Buffalo’s top line of the season. That gave the Sabres a 2-0 lead in the first 15 minutes, and debuted Skinner’s goal song, “Breaking Free,” soaring ballad from the “High School Musical” soundtrack that was a hit with the crowd, and the winning goaltender.
“I loved it,” said the 22-year-old Levi, born six years before the film’s release. “It was nice. It was a good vibe. I don’t know the words, but it was nice to hear.”
Tyson Jost made his season debut, centering the fourth line after he was a healthy scratch in the previous two games, and had the assist on Girgensons’ goal at 11:03 of the first period.
Peyton Krebs moved up to right wing on the second line next to Cozens, while Victor Olofsson was scratched.
This continued a trend from last season, when Olofsson did not play in five consecutive games toward the end of a campaign when he set a career-high with 28 goals, the fifth-best total on the team.
Despite his potent shot, Olofsson’s deficient all-around game has made him a spare part in the Sabres’ forward group, and the most likely candidate to be traded during the season.
Olofsson’s $4.75 million salary in the last season of his contract might be difficult to trade, and if the Sabres suspect that no other NHL team is willing to take on the contract, the possibility of waiving Olofsson to create a roster spot could be considered at some point.
In addition to rookie Zach Benson claiming a roster spot and playing in the first three games, the Sabres have another recent first-round pick in Matt Savoie ready to come off injured reserve, forcing a decision to keep the 19-year-old on the NHL roster or send him back to juniors.
The Sabres did incur a potentially discouraging loss when top pair defenseman Mattais Samuelsson was removed from the game with upper-body injury after skating one shift in the third period.
It’s unclear when Samuelsson got hurt, but Granato indicated afterward that the injury won’t keep him out for a long period.
“I would expect that he should feel better tomorrow, but we’ll see,” Granato said. “But it doesn’t seem like it’ll be much more than day to day.”
The Sabres had a 9-15-3 record last season without Samuelsson in the lineup, and went 33-18-4 when he played. They are better equipped for his absence after the offseason acquisition of Connor Clifton and Erik Johnson, who alternated shifts with Rasmus Dahlin following Samuelsson’s injury.
Counting the house
Paid attendance was 66% of capacity, down significantly from a sellout in the season opener.
The figure was right around what Buffalo averaged for five October home games last season (12,760). It was a significant drop from the second half of last season when the Sabres drew more than 15,000 fans in 16 of the final 20 home contests.
Dropping the puck at 7:30 p.m. on a Tuesday for the first of 15 games the Sabres will play on national television against an opponent that doesn’t draw many visiting fans contributed to the light attendance.
Jonah Bronstein joined the WIVB squad in 2022 as a digital sports reporter. The Buffalonian has covered the Bills, Sabres, Bandits, Bisons, colleges, high schools and other notable sporting events in Western New York since 2005, for publications including The Associated Press, The Buffalo News, and Niagara Gazette. Read more of his work here.