BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — The ‘goat heads’ returned in all their glory.
Jeff Skinner, Mattias Samuelsson and Dylan Cozens scored goals, Casey Mittelstadt tallied two assists, Eric Comrie made 24 saves, and the season’s first occasion sporting the millennial throwbacks galvanized the Sabres in their best performance yet, a 3-1 win against the New York Islanders on Saturday night in front of 16,719 at KeyBank Center.
“We love wearing them, we love how they look, and I think the fans love them too,” said Cozens, as the Sabres improved to 2-3-0 on the year, and 11-1-1 with 61 goals dating to last season when wearing the black, red, white and silver color scheme of the franchise from 1996-2006. “I don’t know what it is, but we always play good in them.”
Coach Don Granato responded to a sloppy loss Thursday night against the Flames by retrofitting the forward lines to combinations that thrived toward the end of last season.
While it didn’t result in six goals like so many of last season’s ‘goat head’ games, the Sabres generated 64% of the shot attempts, recorded 43 scoring chances, and a season-high 43 shots on goal, a total they have reached four times in a regulation victory over the past three seasons.
The new lead line mutates the top centers, Tage Thompson and Cozens, with surging power forward Jordan Greenway. The towering trio produced better than 80% of shot attempts and expected goals at 5-on-5 when on the ice Saturday night.
Thompson didn’t score but set a career-high with 10 shots on goal. Cozens had six from right wing, knocking one in for Buffalo’s third goal, with an assist from Greenway. It was Cozens’ second time scoring in three games, following an overtime winner Tuesday night, and made him the third player from the 2019 draft class to tally 50 career goals.
Mittelstadt is now centering Jeff Skinner and Alex Tuch, a role he was prolific in leading the Sabres with 16 points over the final 10 games of last season. Once regarded as the Sabres top centerman before Thompson’s emergence, Mittelstadt continued his solid start in a contract year by setting up both Skinner’s go-ahead goal and Samuelsson’s snipe from the high slot that made it 2-0 within a 2:46 span late in the second period.
Granato “pulled the right strings,” with the line changces, Mittelstadt said. “We got a pretty deep lineup,” he said. “At the same time, guys can kind of play with anyone, and I feel like most guys are comfortable doing that. I think that’s one of the beauties of our team, wherever you’re going to play, you’re going to play with good players.”
Recommitment to defense
Heeding the wisdom of veteran defenseman Erik Johnson, who emphasized the importance of team defense and situational awareness after Thursday night’s loss, the Sabres did their best to honor the disciplined ‘goat head’ descendants.
Samuelsson, the most reliable Sabres defender last season, said the Stanley Cup champion experience Johnson brings to the club has had a “huge impact.”
“He’s such a good guy, first off,” Samuelsson said. “Fits in so well, and then combine that with his experience and what he’s been through in his career, winning, the ups and downs. He doesn’t talk too much but when he does, everyone listens. He has a lot of respect in the room.”
The tone was set with the starting lineup, featuring Johnson, paired with Connor Clifton, another veteran defenseman signed during the offseason, and Buffalo’s fourth line with captain Kyle Okposo and alternate Zemgus Girgensons, centered by Tyson Jost, a former teammate of Johnson’s in Colorado.
The Sabres didn’t allow anything easy against an Islanders team that lost in overtime against Lindy Ruff’s New Jersey Devils to build steam early. The visitors had only eight shots on goal through the first 30 minutes.
Buffalo’s defense turned into offense. Samuelsson strode into his third goal in 114 NHL games. Dahlin locked down the win when he stole a pass and drove the puck to the net to create Cozens’ scoring chance, notching his fifth assist in five games. Hall of Famer Phil Housley is the only other Sabres defenseman to achieve that feat in consecutive seasons. Dahlin finished the night with an emphatic check, one of what Granato called “several star plays” made by Buffalo’s top D-man.
Comrie ‘dialed in’
The Sabres received their best goaltending of the season so far in the first game without starter Devon Levi, who is day to day with a lower-body injury.
Comrie, whose lone shutout for the Sabres last season came against the Islanders, came within 1:21 of recording another one.
“Dialed in,” Granato said. “It was a very challenging game. Much like his career, you’ve got to be ready when you’re called upon and there’s a lot of intervals where you’re not called upon, and that was tonight’s game. He had to make a few saves and he made some saves where if you watched them on video, they were a lot more difficult than they appeared. But he made them look easy with some traffic around him. He didn’t have a ton of action, but he was steady.”
The quality start followed a steady preseason for Comrie, bolstering his position as the primary backup ahead of third goalie Ukka-Pekka Luukkonen. After Levi let in 14 goals in four games, the consistency from Comrie could warrant another start Monday night against Montreal.
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.