Five thoughts on Sabres’ up-and-down start to California road trip

Devon Levi hadn’t played in an NHL game since Jan. 9. So when he allowed three of the first six shots he faced in the Buffalo Sabres game against the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday night, Don Granato admitted it was a “delicate situation.”

Granato thought about pulling Levi, but didn’t think the team needed a jolt. He thought his players were locked in. But the fact of the matter is they were still trailing 3-1 in the first period, one night after an embarrassing 4-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks. Many Sabres fans watching the game on the East Coast likely turned the television off and went to bed.

But not only did Levi stop the final seven shots of the first period, he ended up stopping 34 straight shots as the Sabres clawed back and upended the Kings with a 5-3 comeback win.

It started with Levi making a few tough saves to keep the game close, but then his fellow youngsters picked up the slack over the next two periods. JJ Peterka, who opened the scoring for the Sabres, also got the second goal when Jack Quinn set him up for a breakaway. Less than two minutes later, Quinn scored himself to tie the game with a perfect shot from the slot.

In the third period, Alex Tuch knocked home a net-front pass from Eric Robinson before Dylan Cozens got the Sabres some extra cushion with a goal on the rush. In a back-and-forth game that featured a combined 25 high-danger chances, the Sabres snuck away with a 5-3 win and two points.

They’re far from seriously thinking about the playoffs, but the Sabres at least managed to erase the taste of inexcusable loss from the night before in Anaheim. And they were reminded of the potential of some of their young players in the process. Buffalo got 10 points from players aged 22 or younger in this game, and the 22-year-old goaltender stopped 37 of 40 shots for his first win since Jan. 4.

Peterka and Quinn led the way with three points each. Peterka also drew three penalties. Cozens had two points, despite missing some time in the game with an injury. Peyton Krebs and Ryan Johnson each had an assist.

“We knew last night was probably one of our worst games so we wanted to make this a way different game,” Peterka told reporters after the game.

Devon Levi stopped 37 of 40 shots Wednesday against the Kings for his first win since Jan. 4. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)

Quick hits

1. This was Peterka’s first multi-point game since Nov. 19 and the first three-point game of his career. When the Cozens-Peterka-Quinn line was on the ice, the Sabres had three goals but also didn’t allow a single goal at five-on-five. Quinn and Peterka were each on for four Sabres goals at five-on-five, and the Sabres heavily outchanced the Kings with both players on the ice. The Sabres had an 8-2 advantage in scoring chances when Quinn was on the ice and an 11-5 advantage when Peterka was on. Peterka now has 32 points this season. If he can become a consistent driver for Buffalo down the stretch, that would be a nice development for the future of this team.

2. Levi’s situation will be interesting to monitor going forward. The way he rebounded in this game was encouraging. He allowed three goals on 17 shots in his one-game trip to the AHL over the weekend and then allowed three quick goals on the road against the Kings. His response to that adversity should help his confidence. But the Sabres still need to be careful with him down the stretch. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has played well enough to be the No. 1 goalie going forward. Levi needs to get game action, but the Sabres can’t force him in at the expense of giving Luukkonen the workload he’s earned. The easy solution if needed is to put Levi in the AHL and call Eric Comrie up to the NHL to be the backup. If Levi can play at that level and handle the mental battles that come with the role he’s in, the Sabres can justify keeping him in the NHL. But there’s no harm in him playing in AHL Rochester down the stretch if it means he can gain confidence and get a steadier workload.

3. In the last two games, Peyton Krebs has been on the ice for 39 shot attempts for and only 18 against at five-on-five. He hasn’t been on the ice for a single goal against. His line was the one that brought the energy to spark a late comeback against the Ducks and he managed to make the most of his limited ice time against the Kings. Even as he gets moved around the lineup, Krebs finds a way to make his mark on the game.

4. Tage Thompson is now without a point in five of his last six games and hasn’t scored in six games. Against the Kings, he had 13 shot attempts but only four of those shots hit the net and he only generated two individual scoring chances. The injuries are behind him, but Thompson is still fighting to find the same scoring touch he had a season ago. He did tie a season high with four hits against the Ducks and his shot-attempt numbers show he’s been engaged and involved in these games. But with the Sabres’ power play struggling, Thompson’s numbers have taken a big hit. He needs to find a way to generate more consistent offense at even strength.

5. It’s barely worth mentioning the playoffs unless the Sabres can string together five or six wins in a row. But it does feel like the Sabres have a lot to play for down the stretch. For starters, if players want to show how they feel about Granato, they’ll need a lot more games like the one they played against the Kings and a lot fewer like the one they played against the Ducks. The Sabres managed to come back and beat the Kings, but they once again fell behind early. In the first period, they have now allowed an NHL-high 60 goals and have scored only 33 for 29th in the NHL. They have also allowed two or more goals in 21 of their 48 games this season. With the win against the Kings, they are 3-17-1 in those games. If they want to show their coach they have his back, the Sabres need to play an inspired game from the drop of the puck more consistently.

(Top photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)

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