PHILADELPHIA — Tage Thompson didn’t even bother to celebrate.
Thompson has done it to enough goaltenders this season, and the Philadelphia Flyers put up so little resistance that the display of skill seemed routine. He picked up a pass from Jeff Skinner, skated to the slot and beat rookie goaltender Felix Sandstrom with a low shot to push the Buffalo Sabers lead to two goals late in the second period.
There’s nothing routine about what Thompson and the Sabers accomplished in Don Granato’s first full season as coach. Their 5-3 win over the Flyers on Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center was the latest example of how the young core and surrounding veterans 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 back-to-back home-and-away games against the Flyers (23-42-11) behind two goals from Victor Olofsson, one from Anders Bjork and Thompson added his second of the game with the empty net. It was a second straight win for Buffalo after giving up a goal just 1:18 from the start of Sunday’s game.
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“It’s great for our group,” Bjork said. “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 developed over this year. I think that it’s a huge step since the start of the year where we were letting games go by, where teams were scoring one or two goals quickly on us.”
With his 19th and 20th goals of the season, the latter giving Buffalo a 3-2 lead in the second period, Olofsson set a new career high in points (44). He is one of five non-rookie Sabers to achieve 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 being scored in 2017-18 by Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane. The difference, however, is that the current group thriving under Granato – Thompson (36 goals), Skinner (31), Olofsson (20) and Kyle Okposo (20) – will be here next season. Kane had left before the trade deadline in 2018 and O’Reilly left that summer.
For perspective, Thompson’s 36 goals tied Eichel’s career-high 36 in the 2019-20 season. And Thompson did it despite his stint at the center of the wing in training camp. Olofsson, 26, hit the 20-goal mark after suffering a wrist injury which impacted his left-handed shot.
There were no problems with his best weapon on Sunday, as the winger scored two power-play goals on one-timers from the right circle to help Buffalo rebound from an early 1-0 deficit.
“It’s very important for us as coaches to see these guys succeed individually, to be rewarded individually,” Granato said. “To know that they are committed to what we do. They are very committed to their team, they are very committed to their teammates and when you have guys like that, who come to work every day, in training or at the game. … When they 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 eventually having goal options on both units. And another hallmark achievement from Granato’s first season shone 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 first-period assists. Still just 22, Dahlin has scored a career-high 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, playing his third career NHL game, looked 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 game 2-2 just 1:20 into the second period and threatened again in the third when Zack MacEwen made it 4-3. But Sabers goaltender 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 battle. They are expected to hire another full-time head coach this summer and could make some bigger changes to their roster. The Sabres, meanwhile, had another game in which their young core showed how far they’ve come since the start of the season and continued to develop for next season.
“With the experience here in this streak, I think we played good hockey and won a few games,” Samuelsson said. “With this you learn what you have to do and what each guy’s role is late in the game and how to run the clock.”
Here are some other observations from the game:
The celebration was muted, but there’s no doubt that the Sabers’ 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’s been knocked out healthy in 19 of the team’s previous 21 games, including 17 in a row, and needs to show management he can fill a bottom-six role in the final season of his contract in 2022. -23. A bad line change from Philadelphia and a quick pass from Dahlin pushed 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 is not imminent for Owen Power. Someone will have to hurt enough to open up a place for the 19-year-old defender. The Sabers power play has scored two goals in three of its last four games. Olofsson’s first goal on Sunday tied the score, 1-1, 8:36 into the game.
Power gained more valuable experience against the Flyers’ top players. He finished at minus-3 in 22:09 of ice time, skating at even strength and shorthanded. There were some inevitable mistakes as he acclimated to the NHL, but he also showed composure and wasn’t rattled after the first goal against.
Samuelsson was once again exceptional for the Sabers, leading the team in ice time (26:05) and blocked shots (4). He was also credited with five hits and foiled a potential 2-for-0 in the first period by using his reach to knock the puck off Scott Laughton’s stick. It was Samuelsson’s first NHL game in Philadelphia. His father, Kjell, played nine seasons as a Flyers defenseman and has worked with the organization in various coaching roles since 1999-2000. He is currently the player development coach for the team.
“Samuelsson is a beast there,” beamed Granato.
The Sabers play the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center Thursday at 7 p.m.