PHILADELPHIA – Tage Thompson didn’t even bother to celebrate.
Thompson’s done this to enough goalies this season, and the Philadelphia Flyers resisted so little, that the display of skill seemed routine. He collected a pass from Jeff Skinner, skated untouched to the slot and beat rookie goalie Felix Sandstrom with a low shot to push the Buffalo Sabres’ lead to two goals late in the second period.
There’s nothing routine about what Thompson and the Sabers have accomplished in Don Granato’s first full season as coach. Their 5-3 victory over the Flyers on Sunday in Wells Fargo Center was the latest example of how the young core and surrounding veteran players have collectively improved this season.
The outlook for next season is bright and that couldn’t be said in the final weeks of most seasons during the franchise’s 11-year playoff drought. The Sabers (29-38-11) swept both games of the back-to-back, home-and-home against the Flyers (23-42-11) behind two goals from Victor Olofsson, one by Anders Bjork and Thompson added his second of the game with the net empty. It was a second straight comeback win for Buffalo after it allowed a goal only 1:18 into the game Sunday.
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“That’s great for our group,” said Bjork. “It shows our maturity. You can tell we don’t feel like we’re giving up. When teams score a goal or two against us, we still have that confidence that we’ve grown over this year. I think that’s a huge step from the beginning of the year when we were letting games go, when teams would score one or two goals quick on us.”
With his 19th and 20th goals of the season, the latter of which gave Buffalo a 3-2 lead in the second period, Olofsson established a new career-high in points (44). He’s one of five non-rookie Sabers to reach a new personal best in points this season, joining Thompson, Rasmus Dahlin, Rasmus Asplund and Henri Jokiharju.
The Sabers have four 20-goal scorers in the same season for the first time since it was done in 2017-18 by Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane. The difference, though, is the current group that’s thriving under Granato – Thompson (36 goals), Skinner (31), Olofsson (20) and Kyle Okposo (20) – will be here next season. Kane was gone before the trade deadline in 2018 and O’Reilly left that summer.
For perspective, Thompson’s 36 goals matched the career-high 36 totaled by Eichel during the 2019-20 season. And Thompson has done this despite moving to center from the wing in training camp. Olofsson, 26, reached the 20-goal mark after playing through a wrist injury that impacted his left-handed shot.
There were no issues with his best weapon Sunday, as the winger scored a pair of power-play goals on one-timers from the right circle to help Buffalo rally from an early 1-0 deficit.
“It’s all big for us as coaches, to see these guys succeed individually, get rewarded individually,” said Granato. “Knowing they’re committed to what we’re doing. They’re very committed to their team, they’re very committed to their teammates and when you have guys like that, that come to work every day, practice or game. … When they do score, we are very excited for them, personally.”
The Sabers’ power play entered Sunday ranked fourth in the NHL since March 17, a product of the club finally having scoring options on both units. And another prominent success story in Granato’s first season shined again, in every situation no less, against the Flyers.
Dahlin became the seventh different defenseman in franchise history to reach the 50-point mark with his pair of primary assists in the first period. Still only 22 years old, Dahlin has a career-best 10 goals while averaging 23:58 of ice time this season.
“He’s an incredible player,” Sabers defenseman Mattias Samuelsson said of Dahlin. “I think he’s a superstar in this league.”
The Flyers are 2-10 in their last 12 games and were missing several key veterans, including former Sabers defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. Sandstrom, who was playing in his third career NHL game, appeared overmatched early in the game and received little help from his teammates. Philadelphia made a horrible line change that led to Bjork’s goal.
But Philadelphia provided a test for Buffalo. The Flyers tied the score 2-2 only 1:20 into the second period and threatened again in the third when Zack MacEwen made it 4-3. But Sabers goalie Dustin Tokarski played well enough to help his teammates hold on, finishing with 32 saves for the win. Dahlin, Skinner and Peyton Krebs each finished with two assists.
The Flyers, like most teams at the bottom of the NHL standings, don’t have a clear path to contending. They’re expected to hire another full-time head coach this summer and could make more significant roster changes. The Sabres, meanwhile, had another game in which their young core showed how far they’ve come since the season began and continued to build for next season.
“With experience here in this stretch, I think we’ve been playing good hockey and winning some games,” said Samuelsson. “With that, you learn what you need to do and what each guy’s role is late in the game and how to manage the clock.”
Here are other observations from the game:
The celebration was subdued, but there’s no question that the Sabres’ second goal of the game, Bjork’s fifth of the season and his first since Dec. 14, was important for the 25-year-old winger. He was a healthy scratch in 19 of the team’s previous 21 games, including 17 straight, and needs to show management that he can fill a bottom-six role in the final season of his contract in 2022-23. A bad Philadelphia line change and quick pass by Dahlin sprung Bjork for a breakaway that gave the Sabers a 2-1 lead with 2:26 left in the first period.
A role on the power play isn’t imminent for Owen Power. Someone is going to have to perform poorly enough to open a spot for the 19-year-old defenseman. The Sabres’ power play has scored twice in three of its last four games. Olofsson’s first goal Sunday tied the score, 1-1, at 8:36 into the game.
Power gained more valuable experience against the Flyers’ top players. He finished with a minus-3 rating in 22:09 of ice time, skating at even strength and the penalty kill. There were inevitable mistakes as he acclimated to the NHL, but he also showed poise and didn’t get rattled after the early goal against.
Samuelsson was outstanding again for the Sabres, leading the team in ice time (26:05) and blocked shots (4). He also was credited with five hits and thrown a potential 2-on-0 in the first period by using his reach to knock the puck off the stick of Scott Laughton. This was Samuelsson’s first NHL game in Philadelphia. His father, Kjell, played nine seasons as a defenseman for the Flyers and has worked with the organization in various coaching roles since 1999-2000. He’s currently a player development coach for the team.
“Samuelsson is a beast back there,” Granato beamed.
The Sabers will face the New Jersey Devils in Prudential Center on Thursday at 7 pm