Sabers teaches patience to a young team in the playoff race

BUFFALO, NY – Sabers Captain Kyle Okposo is one of the oldest players on one of the NHL’s youngest teams and makes sure to present a patient frontline amid a late-season playoff push.

Though Okposo would like nothing more than to end the league’s worst 11-year playoff drought, the soon-to-be 35-year-old understands there are lessons to be learned and steps that cannot be skipped.

Before the Sabers began their current three-game journey, Okposo said the team is close.

“And if you said that we would be at this point before the year, most people would have laughed,” he added. “So we’re getting there. We just have to keep going and we have to keep knowing that what we’re doing is working and we can’t get impatient with the results.”

It’s a challenge for a team where most players are experiencing an NHL playoff race for the first time.

“It’s a different pressure than last year,” Okposo said, referring to how a team already out of contention ended the season on a 14-7-3 run. “Last year we tried to build something. So how do you continue to build and how do you continue to deal with the pressure?”

Results so far have been mixed, reflecting a team made up of three rookies and seven players born in 2000 or later. Also, only eight players were in the playoffs for a total of 218 playoff games, led by Alexander cloth‘s 66 appearances with with Vegas.

At 33-28-6, Buffalo is poised on the brink of the playoff race — 11th in Eastern Conference standings with 72 points and six by wildcard competition with 15 games remaining.

On the bright side, with three more wins, the Sabers will have their most since 2011-12, which was the last time the team finished with more regular wins than losses (39-32-11).

The telltale signs of youth were evident in Buffalo’s 2-5-2 record in the last nine games.

The Sabers recovered from a 2-0 deficit to beat Toronto 4-3, then squandered a 4-2 lead in the final 10 minutes of regulation in a 5-4 shootout against Washington.

The low point was a 3-2 loss at the New York Islanders – decided by a goal that the Sabers questioned when the puck landed on Hudson Fasching’s shin. The frustration carried over into a 10-4 drubbing at home against Dallas two days later.

After the loss, coach Don Granato joked that he couldn’t bench everyone while shifting the focus forward, saying: “Something good has to come out of this.”

“Everyone makes mistakes and the quicker you learn the better,” he said. “Tonight has got to be one of those unfortunate negatives, a bad memory that makes you better.”

Buffalo responded with one of its most efficient defensive plays in a 2-1 shootout loss to the New York Rangers.

General Manager Kevyn Adams is careful to balance long-term development and short-term success for a franchise that has too often stalled when trying to speed up its process during an 11-year stretch that has seen Buffalo four times with the worst record in the NHL. That included the pandemic-shortened 2021 season, during which Adams brought his vision to life by erasing the veteran core of his roster.

While the team has shown signs of growth, Adams felt it was important to stick to his plan by sticking to the trading deadline for most of last month, bar acquisitions Jordan Greenway from Minnesota.

“What I want to see from our guys is just be themselves and play fearlessly,” Adams said. “I know what it takes to win in this league and I know we have it. Now I just want to believe in these guys and let them go.”

Adams never promised there would be no bumps in the road and his players understand that.

“I’m not saying we’re going to win now, but we’re learning and it took time, as it should,” defender Rasmus Dahlin called. “It takes time, but once you understand what it takes, it’s a lot of fun. But we are still on the learning path and are far from done.”

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