Buffalo Sabres' general manager Tim Murray stood in a small hallway just outside the Sabres' suite at Blue Cross Arena. He was surrounded by three or four reporters, trying to suppress his frustration following an ugly first period. The Amerks went into the locker room down 3-0 after one.
Murray tried not to be ironic when talking about how good the team has been lately, saying he wants the Sabres' young players to play on a winner.
Then the second period came 'round and a completely different team showed up against the AHL's best club, the Texas Stars. They got on the board just 2:24 into the second period and never looked back, winning 5-4 in overtime.
Did Murray's presence help the team recover?
“I certainly don't think it hurt,” head coach Chadd Cassidy said. “He made his presence known. I hope that guys would think twice about who was watching and I think it is important for players to know. He came in and talked to them after the game and let them know he is going to be watching every night.”
Luke Adam started the comeback on a pretty backhand pass across the slot to Phil Varone, who scored his 10th of the season.
Four minutes later, Johan Larsson – who had a terrific game on both ends of the ice – scored on a tape-to-tape feed from Kevin Porter.
The Amerks' second wind was somewhat surprising, not just because the Amerks were facing the league's best team, but also because they were playing their third game in three nights. Larsson especially caused multiple turnovers by the Stars and battled hard late into the game.
“He is a competitor,” Cassidy said of Larsson. “I remember at least two or three times in the offensive zone in the third period when he was using his cutbacks below the goal line and it looked like he had two or three guys on him and he came out with the puck.”
Dan Catenacci blew past several Stars defenders to score after receiving a perfect neutral zone pass from Colton Gillies. The rookie's goal knotted the game at three and was indicative of the large steps he has taken forward in development. Catenacci used his speed and puck-handling skill to drive toward the net.
“He looked the most comfortable and confident tonight, maybe because we put him back at center ice,” Cassidy said.
After giving up a goal on a 2-on-1, Joel Armia's brilliance with the puck was on display to tie the game at four. He danced by two defenders, stopping, starting, then deking and finding Gillies with a pass to create the fourth goal of the night.
Rasmus Ristolainen made a risky play in overtime that turned into the game winning goal. As the Stars were changing, he left a drop pass for Drew Bagnall. The Amerks' captain found a streaking Phil Varone with the puck to win the game.
The team poured off the bench unlike they ever have before. I bet Murray felt much better.
Bagnall and Cassidy said Ristolainen played the best game of his Amerk career. His decisions with the puck, physical play along the walls and defensive awareness was all on display. Ristolainen will be an NHL star if he plays like he did Sunday every night in the NHL. And when he does, give Bagnall some credit for being a terrific role model.
Joel Armia was great against the Stars. He was active in both zones, battled as hard as he has all year and had his puck possession skills in zone entries at their best. He showed the type of potential that made him a high draft pick. He had 2 assists and was +2
Johan Larsson has been on fire lately. He had five shots on goal on Sunday and is now up to 28 points in 28 games and is +13
The return of Jamie Tardif and Mike Zigomanis makes the Amerks quite possibly the best team in the AHL
Colton Gillies was a huge signing in the off-season. Gillies is fast, can play on both ends of the ice and seems to always be in the middle of game-changing plays
Nathan Lieuwen was battling the puck early, but made some grade-A saves down the stretch that kept the Amerks in the game and allowed them the chance to come back and win