Preview: Wild vs. Sabres
ST. PAUL -- When the schedule came out during the summer, Minnesota Wild fans might have looked at Saturday's visit from the Buffalo Sabres as a pretty sure two points.
Given what's happened the first quarter of the season, they might want to rethink that notion. Not because the Wild aren't playing well, because at 12-5-2, they are just a point behind Nashville for first place in the Central Division.
It's because Buffalo, after years of playing mostly terrible hockey, appears to have finally become a good team again. Phil Housley's second year behind the bench is going much better than the first, as the Sabres (11-6-2) have made a big statement this week.
Consecutive 2-1 wins over Tampa Bay and Winnipeg -- Buffalo needed seven rounds in a shootout to pick up the extra point Friday night in Manitoba -- have given Buffalo four straight victories and lifted it into contention in the Atlantic Division.
"There's a lot of really good players and a lot of really good leaders," Sabres forward Conor Sheary said. "I think with the new faces we brought in, a little bit of youth in our lineup, I think we've just come in with a little bit of new energy."
The win over the Jets was a prime example of Buffalo's progress. It played strong defense, getting 25 saves from Carter Hutton. It played a disciplined game, taking just one minor penalty against a team clicking at 34 percent on the power play.
And it got just enough offense. Jeff Skinner potted his 14th goal on a power play in the first minute of the third period, the Sabres' first man-advantage marker in five games. Sheary then wrapped up the win by scoring on the last attempt of a 14-man shootout.
But all that exertion could hamper Buffalo in a back-to-back against Minnesota, which got off to a fast start Thursday night in a 6-2 thumping of Vancouver. The Wild scored two goals in a 2:06 span of the first period and kept pouring it on, leading 5-1 before the second period was over.
Despite the absence of forward Zach Parise (illness), Minnesota compensated. Charlie Coyle moved onto Parise's line with Mikko Koivu and Nino Niederreiter, and the trio combined for three goals and two assists.
"He's a terrific player, so it's always tough if we don't have him in the lineup," Niederreiter said regarding Parise. "But it's obviously great we had a chance to step up and do some good things out there."
It's not known if Parise will be able to return, but what is certain is that the Wild are a tough out at Xcel Energy Center. Minnesota is 6-1-2 in front of its fans, with the only regulation loss coming Tuesday night against Washington.
The Wild wasted little time bouncing back Thursday night, winning 58 percent of the faceoffs, converting both power plays and getting another solid game from goalie Devan Dubnyk. He stopped 25 of 27 shots in improving to 9-4-2 with a 2.32 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage.