BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Returning to KeyBank Center for the second time this season, Lindy Ruff chuckled when recollecting the criticism that both the “goat head” and “slug” uniforms received during his tenure as Sabres coach. “But we had pretty good success in them,” Ruff remembered. “They were good for me, and good for the team.”
Ruff then got a good look at how sharp the Sabres have been wearing their retro threads this season.
Buffalo boosted its spirits and reinvigorated its postseason pursuit with a 5-3 win against the New Jersey Devils, who entered Friday night needing one win to clinch a playoff berth. Ruff summed up the defeat by saying the Sabres “skated right by us.”
The Sabres hadn’t scored that many goals in 11 games — since the last victory in the throwback sweaters on March 4 — and had been outscored 31-10 in losing their past five home games. Overall, they were on a four-game skid and had lost 10 of 12.
“It felt like we had the swagger back,” said defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who earlier this year referenced the Sabres’ devilish delight when wearing the red-and-black jerseys.
The “goat-headed” Sabres improved to 9-1-1 on retro nights this year, with 54 goals in those games. They have scored at least five goals in each victory.
Buffalo (34-31-6) remained on the fringes of the playoff hunt, six points back of Pittsburgh for the Eastern Conference’s final wild-card spot heading into Saturday night’s game at the New York Islanders.
The postseason hopes are fading, with Florida, Ottawa and Washington also ahead of Buffalo in the standings. The Sabres will need to play this well most every night over the final 11 games. But they proved to themselves Friday night that they are still capable of doing so against one of the teams already in playoff position.
“We played a really good game and it’s a big step in the right direction,” said Alex Tuch, who led the Sabres with two goals and an assist. “I thought we corrected a lot of the mistakes we made in games past. We didn’t let that hang over our heads. We just kept our heads up and went to work.”
In beating a Devils team that won 3-1 here in November, the Sabres had a number of encouraging performances from key players.
Jack Quinn and Dylan Cozens set each other up for goals within the first 11 minutes, and JJ Peterka recorded an assist on both. It marked the first time three players age 22 or younger had two points in the first period of a game since April 1, 1984, when Phil Housley, Paul Cyr and John Tucker accomplished the feat against the Leafs. Cozens’ 28th goal is the most by a Sabres player in his age-21 season since Pierre Turgeon (32) and Mogilny (30) in 1990-91.
Tage Thompson tallied his 44th goal, the most by a Sabres player in 30 seasons, since Alexander Mogilny and Pat LaFontaine teamed up to score 129. Following a season-long scoring drought (seven games) with goals in consecutive contests, Thompson is back on pace for the seventh 50-goal season in Sabres’ history.
The Sabres might not have the All-Star centerman in the lineup for the first time this season, however, after getting Thompson got banged up by a check from New Jersey’s Timo Meier in the first period. Thompson dropped to a knee and grabbed his right side after the hit, and remained in the dressing room for the first few shifts of the second. Thompson’s return gave the Sabres an emotional lift, just before Tuch scored the first of his two goals in 12 minutes that made it 5-2.
“He’s a warrior. He went into battle,” Tuch said. “It was good to have him back and I thought he didn’t miss a beat out there.”
But coach Don Granato said Thompson was playing through pain over the final two periods and is questionable going into the second game of a back-to-back Saturday on Long Island. The Buffalo’s next game after that is at home Monday against Montreal.
Tuch, who lifted his season goal tally to 32, had been playing hurt since returning early from a lower-body injury 11 days ago, “way sooner than he should’ve,” Granato said.
“I knew things were good going in when Tuch walked in the building and told me to smile,” Granato said. “That, to me, behind that, told me right away he’s finally feeling good about his game. … Each day he’s better and better.”
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen also showed improvement from recent outings. He did allow two goals in the third period to make things interesting late, but finished with 27 saves to earn a victory for the first time in seven starts. His 16th win of the season is tied for the sixth-most by a Sabres’ rookie goaltender.
Sabres players warmed up in green jerseys with the names of local veterans on the back. The jerseys were gifted to service members in attendance for Military Appreciation Night.
Captain Kyle Okposo’s jersey recognized Nicholas Warden, a U.S. Army veteran who died in 2017 while serving in Syria. A video shown during the first intermission showcased the team’s adopted service dog, Nikki, who was named in Warden’s honor.
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Jonah Bronstein joined the News 4 roster in 2022 as a digital sports reporter. Read more of his work here.