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Small changes signify big improvements for Sabres

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Early success fueled by special teams, discipline

Buffalo Sabres v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Five games into the 2018-19 season, things feel...different for the Buffalo Sabres. After nearly a decade of struggling to obtain talent and depth without breaking the bank, the Sabres are finally making progress. What gives fans the most hope for the future is that this squad looks good, and still has a lot more developing to do.

The hot-and-cold start is a stark contrast to the absolute zero of the past few seasons. Even when things were at their best, it was a set of individual efforts and not necessarily team wins. This October, it feels like a more cohesive unit is taking the ice. Scoring is more diverse. Minutes are (slightly) more evenly divided. It’s a good time to be a Sabres fan.

The last time the Sabres were two games over .500, the iPhone 4 was stuffed in the back pockets of Buffalonians. No one had ever tasted a Big Ditch beer. Tuesday, it could happen again.

The perceived increase in scoring is a huge part of the team’s measured success. Though the 11 goals in five games results only in a 2.2 goals per game (down slightly from last year’s 2.42,) the measure includes a shutout and a one-goal game. Even strength scoring might be down for Buffalo, but the Sabres are running a 22.2 percent success rate on the power play - up 3 percent from last season.

Special teams has been good in Buffalo’s wins, and not very good in Buffalo’s losses. The Sabres recently missed the mark against the Colorado Avalanche, dropping a 6-1 decision that saw the power play go 0-for-4. Conversely, the team has at least one power play goal in its three victories, and is 4-for-7 overall.

The increase in power play success is to be expected; general manager Jason Botterill worked hard to improve Buffalo’s scoring acumen in the offseason. It helps that players like Kyle Okposo are beginning to play up to their expectations, as well.

What is perhaps more surprising is that the team is playing well on the penalty kill. Surely, the acquisition of goaltender Carter Hutton has helped. Hutton’s penalty kill save percentage has been very good more than one season in his career. But aside from the improvement in net, Buffalo’s penalty killing unit is largely the same - especially from a defensive standpoint. Rasmus Ristolainen and Marcus Scandella continue to lead the team in minutes, and play a lion’s share of the shorthanded time.

But just as the power play has contributed to the early wins in Buffalo, the Sabres have been perfect when shorthanded. Discipline has played a key role for the club as well; the team is in the top third of the league with the tenth-best times shorthanded. Of the nine teams with fewer instances, only the Nashville Predators have played more than four games.

There are those that are calling for Housley’s termination, but improved special teams and improved discipline indicate that the coach is getting through. It will take time for the complete game to come around, particularly given the roster turnover that Buffalo has experienced. The sample size is clearly small, but these changes are significant, and they are early indicators of bigger and better things on the horizon.