TAMPA, Fla. — With the NHL trade deadline over, the Buffalo Sabres were finally able to embark on some distraction-free hockey here Thursday night.
Buffalo’s 3-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Tampa Bay Times Forum was No. 62 on the 82-game NHL schedule, and the Sabres say they’re turning the final 21 games into a mini-postseason.
It was a terrific game for goaltender Jhonas Enroth, who came within 2½ minutes of his first shutout of the season and was the unquestioned first star as Buffalo was outshot, 44-21.
The Sabres are obviously not getting a real postseason, but coach Ted Nolan expects players like Enroth to push hard and leave good impressions with the organization, notably new General Manager Tim Murray.
“A lot of guys’ contracts are up, there are jobs to be won,” Nolan said. “There’s no such thing as there’s nothing to play for. There’s a lot to play for. They’re playing for livelihoods, so we’ve got to unite, find some new leaders on this team.”
“After the changes of the last week, it’s important for us to really focus on competing,” said defenseman Tyler Myers, who scored in the first period and assisted on Marcus Foligno’s goal in the second. “That’s something we’ve done a good job with.”
The Sabres suffered two key injuries, however, when center Zemgus Girgensons left with a lower body injury after one shift in the second period and burly winger Chris Stewart left in the third after Tampa goalie Anders Lindback crushed him chasing a runaway puck in the Tamapa zone. Nolan said both players are very doubtful for tonight’s game against the Florida Panthers.
Enroth has won three of four starts since returning from the Olympics and posted a .931 save percentage in that span. He stopped a combined nine shots Thursday from Tampa Bay star Steven Stamkos, back from a 45-game absence after a broken leg, and newly acquired Ryan Callahan.
“I do believe in being in a zone, but I also believe in good habits,” Enroth said. “I’m just trying to create good habits all year. I guess it’s starting to pay off a little bit now.”
The Sabres are 4-1 since the Olympic break and have showed plenty of fortitude when you consider all that’s happened in the last week.
“If you look at the majority of the teams, they’ve got one guy they’re thinking about moving,” Nolan said. “We had almost half our team in the trade mill, and we didn’t really know until yesterday. There were a lot of anxious moments.
“One of the guys was telling me one of the other guys’ hands were shaking at lunch time. They are human too. It’s not just about going to a different team. It’s moving their families, unaware where they’re going. To be totally focused on the game of hockey is tough.”
Nolan said he ran into a group of his players near their Harbour Island hotel here Wednesday night, and was relieved to see them happy and laughing. There hasn’t been much of that lately, with all the questions about the deadline and the bizarre departure of Pat LaFontaine, the team’s president of hockey operations.
“You know that this is our team now,” said Foligno, whose head-long dive for the puck set up Cody Hodgson for the third goal. “It was a tough week there for a bit mentally ... but there’s a lot of character in this room.”
Foligno was sensational on Hodgson’s insurance goal that made the score 3-0 with 6:16 to play. He blocked a shot in the Sabres’ zone, hustled after the puck and eventually dove to poke it away from a defenseman and set Hodgson off on a breakway.
“It was the whole play starting from the D zone,” Hodgson said. “Battle in our zone, block the shot himself, hustles up to it and chips it to me for a breakaway. That’s a great play.”
Myers jumped a Mark Barberio cross-ice pass and opened the scoring with a shot to the top corner at 15:56 of the first period.
“I just made a read,” Myers said. “A little risky, but you try and get close enough to have a good enough gap. If you do step up and it’s not there, you’re still there to recover.”
The Sabres debuted one trade acquisition, as 29-year-old Torrey Mitchell played on the fourth line with Matt Ellis and John Scott and was also a prominent penalty killer. Mitchell arrived just after the morning skate ended.
“It’s a quick turnaround and you get to jump into a game right away,” he said.