BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — The 56th game of the season for the Buffalo Sabres was their ninth shutout against of 2021. The Pittsburgh Penguins topped Buffalo 1-0, and in the aftermath of Buffalo's 34th regulation loss of the year, interim head coach Don Granato and his players looked both at the short term and the long term.
Five observations from Saturday:
Houser provides a spark
Michael Houser's journey has been incredible. So have his performances on the ice for the Sabres. He had only played two AHL games since 2016. But as Buffalo netminders continued to dwindle due to injury, he was the unlikely hero that helped the Sabres sputter to the finish.
"The effort that I thought we showed for all 60 minutes, that was really fun to play behind," Houser said. "It's been you know, kind of both extremes over the past five or six days. First two wins, and then the last game didn't go the way you want it to go."
When you include Thursday night's onslaught, Houser's number seem to be about par for the course for any goalie not named Linus Ullmark. After just his first two starts, though, he had a .940 save percentage. Between those two wins, he made 79 saves.
"You get into the dog days, and we're out of it, and guys wanted to play hard," center Casey Mittelstadt said. "Houser came in, you see how excited he is, and gives guys kind of a slap in the face that you're still playing in the NHL."
Something to prove
Interim head coach Don Granato certainly made the case to drop the word "interim" from the title. It seemed like every young player he got into the lineup, whether he had been relegated by Jason Botterill, Kevyn Adams, Ralph Krueger, or some combination of the three, immediately started playing well.
"He challenged me when he took over and pushed me to become a better player. I think it's that simple," Mittelstadt said. "A lot of the strides I've made are partly to do with him pushing me... I owe Donny a huge thank you."
The greatest thanks likely come from an entire line: Mittelstadt, Rasmus Asplund, and Tage Thompson. The three of them were kept together for the most part since Granato took over and the Sabres started winning. Despite bouncing around on the taxi squad, Mittelstadt put up 22 points in 41 games. Thompson had 14 points in 38 games.
"As a coach, you have nothing if you can't push guys. And I really felt the best thing was to be able to push guys. They wanted to be pushed. They wanted more," Granato said. "That was very nice and very special to have as a coach."
A potential farewell
If the interim title isn't dropped, Granato's body of work this season could very well be his ticket out of Western New York. Not only was he able to get the best out of prospects, but several veterans such as Colin Miller and Jeff Skinner saw an improvement as well.
The hand he was dealt wasn't a pretty one. Granato inherited a team on its way to a skid of historic proportions. Without star center Jack Eichel, and with a rotating door at goalie due to injury, he led the Sabres to a 9-16-3 record. The point percentage isn't pretty, but it certainly was a step up from Ralph Krueger.
After Saturday's 1-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Granato didn't explicitly state that he wanted to return to Buffalo's bench. He instead discussed the process that he has been carrying out after games with general manager Kevyn Adams.
"We'll close out the year here, we'll sit down tomorrow and talk more [with Adams]," Granato said. "We'll see where it takes us. It's hard to let go of what just happened [in Saturday's game]."
Back in the basement
15-34-7. 37 points. A point percentage of just 33 percent. No matter how you slice it, this season was nothing short of abysmal. The Sabres' 18-game skid that encompassed nearly a third of their season had them closing in on single-season record pace-- and not in a good way.
"This is a different moment. We need to make everybody better. We're not good enough at that moment to win hockey games," Granato said of his tenure on Saturday. "We're not going to chase one win. We're going to work, and work, and work, until we get our head above water and we can win. And know how to win."
Buffalo rebounded enough under Granato to evade the history books, but the anti-clinch was already there: Buffalo was the worst team in the NHL this season. And it's a place that they've been before. In fact, it's a place they've been three other times in the last decade alone.
The Sabres have been dead last in the NHL in 2014, 2015, 2018, and now 2021. In chronological order, the drafts that followed yielded Sam Reinhart (2nd overall), Jack Eichel (2nd overall), and Rasmus Dahlin (1st overall). No matter where Buffalo picks on July 23rd, the expectation should be another instant impact player.
Speaking of Jack, Sam, and Rasmus...
This offseason is a complete open book for Kevyn Adams. Nearly two thirds of Sabres players under contract to start the season was on an expiring deal this season. Eric Staal, Brandon Montour, Curtis Lazar, and Taylor Hall were all a part of that bunch. And the list still runs very long.
Reinhart and Linus Ullmark, arguably the Sabres' two best players this season, are both coming up on free agency. Reinhart is at least a restricted free agent. Then again, so is Rasmus Dahlin. Other RFA's include Casey Mittelstadt, Rasmus Asplund, Henri Jokiharju, and Will Borgen.
Plus, one of them very well could be scooped up by the Seattle Kraken as they build their initial roster in the expansion draft. The makeup of this team, not just behind the bench, but also on the ice, could be incredibly different next season.
Buffalo's end-of-season media calls will be held on Monday and Tuesday for the players, and on Wednesday for Adams & Granato. Jack Eichel is scheduled to speak for the first time in over two months since it was announced he was out with a neck injury.