BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Tage Thompson set his intention in preseason for a 40-goal campaign. Reaching that threshold with 24 games left to play, the Sabres’ All-Star center has recalibrated his individual goals for the season.
Meanwhile, ending the NHL’s longest postseason drought after 11 years wasn’t a stated goal for Buffalo before the season began. But a playoff spot is well within reach now entering the homestretch, and the Sabres now recognize that goal as something to shoot for.
“At the beginning of the year we just wanted to focus on getting better each and every day. I think that’s still our main focus,” Thompson said after becoming the 14th player in franchise history to score 40 goals in a season during the Sabres’ 7-4 win against the Capitals on Sunday. “But now that we’ve got a taste for it, we are right there, I think it just makes that much hungrier to achieve that goal.
Dylan Cozens scores his first career hat trick and also had an assist as the shorthanded Sabres overcame the injury absence of top players Alex Tuch and Rasmus Dahlin to improve their position in the playoff race with a third consecutive win.
“Everyone stepped up,” Thompson said. “We knew that was a big game. Those were important points for us. We have a group that’s really hungry in here to succeed. And I think everyone in here takes that to heart. I thin know are confident with the group that we have and we knew that we can win this game.”
Jeff Skinner, Zemgus Girgensons and Vinnie Hinostroza also scored as the Sabres went on another scoring spree in their retro “goat head” jerseys at KeyBank Center. Buffalo is 7-0-1 this season when wearing its back-and-red throwbacks, having scored at least six goals in each victory.
The Sabres (31-23-4) moved into ninth place in the Eastern Conference with 66 standings points, one fewer than the Penguins with an additional game in hand, as they push to end the longest postseason drought in history at 11 seasons. The Capitals, Panthers and Red Wings each have 64 points. Buffalo’s point percentage (.569) rates seventh in the conference.
Rookie Jack Quinn, who took Tuch’s place on the Sabres’ top line, tallied two assists, as did Casey Mittelstadt. Sabres goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen made 26 saves for his second victory in five starts this month.
The sixth sellout crowd in Buffalo’s 28th home game of the season tossed hats on the ice when Cozens tallied his 23rd goal of the season and his first career hat trick with 8:08 remaining in the third period. Cozens’ four points also set a career high.
“I had a lot of help,” Cozens said. “Guys setting me up left and right so all I had to do was put the puck in the net. It was great to see everyone step up today and get depth scoring from everyone.”
Following back-to-back wins at Tampa Bay and Florida this week, Buffalo snapped a three-game skid at home in which it had been outscored 18-6. The Sabres are 4-7 at home in 2023, and 12-15-2 on the season.
“You know we had a big disappointment our last time here. I know the guys felt that and, again, it’s a very competitive group,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “They look in the mirror and know they needed to be better than their last game here, specifically, and took it to heart.”
With Tuch set to miss at least two weeks with a lower-body injury, the Sabres recalled Hinostroza from Rochester. In his first game with the Sabres since Jan. 14, Hinostroza scored his first goal of the season. He also had an assist on Cozens’ third goal.
Dahlin is day-to-day, requiring rest for an unspecified injury he has been playing through, Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams said before Sunday’s game.
Skinner, Girgensons and Hinostroza scored in a span of 4:18 to give the Sabres a 5-2 lead midway through the second period and chase Capitals goaltender Darcy Kuemper.
Thompson became Buffalo’s 14th player with 40 goals in a season when he scored unassisted in the first period. It’s the 26th instance of Sabres player scoring 40, and in Thompson’s 58th game, the fifth fastest in franchise history.
Cozens opened the scoring midway through the first period. Mittelstadt fed Cozens in the high slot to record his 100th career point in his 177th NHL game. The 22-year-old center scored his second goal on a partial breakaway set up by Quinn. It was the Sabres’ fourth goal in seven minutes of the second period.
Buffalo’s next game is at home Tuesday night against Columbus.
Jonah Bronstein joined the News 4 roster in 2022 as a digital sports reporter. Read more of his work here.