BUFFALO, N.Y. – The familiar and frustrating February swoons the Buffalo Sabres have best been known for just might be a thing of the past.
With the calendar approaching March, the NHL’s youngest team at the start of the season continues showing signs of making an actual playoff push in a bid to end an 11-year playoff drought, the longest in league history.
The latest glimpse of the Sabres staying in contention came Sunday, when Buffalo overcame a lineup missing two of its top three leading scorers — forward Alex Tuch and defenseman Rasmus Dahlin — in a 7-4 rout of the Washington Capitals.
Dylan Cozens enjoyed the first three-goal game of his career and added an assist. More important, Buffalo had 12 players register at least a point, including Tage Thompson, with his team-leading 40th goal.
“I think everyone stepped up. We knew that was a big game,” Thompson said. “We have a group that’s really hungry in here to succeed. And I think everyone in here takes that to heart.”
Tuch will miss at least two weeks with a lower-body injury. Dahlin, who is tied with Tuch for second on the team with 62 points, is listed as day to day as he rests a nagging injury.
Jeff Skinner, Zemgus Girgensons and Vinnie Hinostroza also scored in a game the Sabres broke open with four goals in a seven-minute span in the second period.
In doing so, the Sabres followed a 6-3 dud of a loss to Toronto on Tuesday to rattle off three straight wins and keep pace in a tightly contested race for the Eastern Conference’s two wild-card spots. Buffalo (31-23-4) opened the day sitting ninth in the East, with three points separating seventh and the suddenly slumping 12th-place Capitals.
The Capitals followed a promising 6-3 win over the New York Rangers to lose for the seventh time in eight outings.
“Its just not good enough. The consistency of attention to detail for us right now has to be at an all-time high,” T.J. Oshie said. “Yesterday it was there for us. Today it wasn’t. You’re not going to last much longer being inconsistent like this.”
Alex Ovechkin scored his team-leading 33rd goal and registered his 1,467th career point to tie Stan Mikita for 16th on the NHL list. Dylan Strome and Oshie had a goal an assist apiece, and Sonny Milano also scored for the Capitals.
Darcy Kuemper was yanked after allowing five goals on 19 shots with 9:53 left in the second period. He was replaced by Charlie Lindgren, who allowed two goals on 18 shots.
The Sabres, meantime, gained contributions from a reshuffled lineup. Rookie Jack Quinn, filling Tuch's spot on the top line, had two assists, while Hinostroza had a goal and assist a day after being recalled from the minors.
“I think what it says is, psychologically, that doesn’t affect them,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “They believe in their own ability and their ability to rise, and we’re gonna need guys to rise when players are absent, specifically the caliber of Tuch and Dahlin.”
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 26 shots for Buffalo.
With the game tied at 2, Skinner scored the go-ahead goal to spark Buffalo’s four-goal outburst 5:49 into the second period, when he stuffed in a puck that got in behind Kuemper after he got a piece of Mattias Samuelsson’s shot from in front.
Kyle Okposo forced a turnover at the right boards to set up Girgensons alone in front 2:47 later, and Kuemper was chased after Hinostroza wrapped a puck behind the goalie at the 10:07 mark of the second period.
Capitals: Head west for a three-game swing beginning at Anaheim on Wednesday.
Sabres: Host Columbus on Tuesday.
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