SAN JOSE – One of the biggest differences in the Sharks' play under the former coaching staff as compared to the current one, now in its second season, is their ability to routinely get up for any opponent no matter where that opponent may be in the standings.
Entering Tuesday night San Jose had an impressive record of 24-4-6 mark against teams not in the playoff picture, after playing down to the level of the competition was a real problem under former coach Todd McLellan.
Of course, there was a leadership change in the dressing room, too. Joe Pavelski took over as the captain in a move that might have been just as vital to the Sharks' recent success as the hiring of Pete DeBoer.
Determined to get past a rebuilding Sabres team that still had the Sharks' number despite the regime change, it was Pavelski who led the way with a pair of goals in a 4-1 victory. Yes, the Sharks can even beat the Sabres now, too, after getting just one overtime win against them in the previous 11 meetings before Tuesday.
The surging captain, who has seven goals in his last five games, drove the bus.
While the time off during the bye week at the end of February likely helped Pavelski, "in the short time I've known him, he cranks it up this time of year," DeBoer said. "Those type of guys see the finish line here, and the playoffs, and they start to get really excited. I think you're seeing a little bit of both of those things."
Pavelski added, "the bye week was great," but he's "definitely [getting] some confidence. Shooting the puck, finding it in good spots recently."
Dylan DeMelo got the primary assist on Pavelski's second goal, when his slap shot bounced off of Josh Gorges' rear end to the Sharks captain's tape.
"He's got the hot hand. He does it every night, though," DeMelo said. "If it's not scoring goals, he's doing something. He works hard all the time in practice. They maybe weren't going in as much as he'd like to early on, but he stays with it, and he's got such great talent around the net. We knew he'd break through, and he's playing huge for us right now."
Beyond Pavelski's performance was that the Sharks kept their foot on the gas against the Sabres for the duration of the evening. Even after they managed 20 shots on goal in the first period without beating Robin Lehner, including getting a goal waved off, they kept coming in the second and third periods.
They are the types of efforts have become a staple under the DeBoer/Pavelski partnership – they'll put forth an honest game on a nearly nightly basis.
Of course, there was motivation to beat the Sabres, too, considering they are a club that has had the Sharks number of the years, including this one. They erased a three-goal third period deficit to stun San Jose on Feb. 7 in upstate New York, 5-4 in overtime.
It helped that the Sharks got a few bounces. On the game-winning goal that made it 2-1, Micheal Haley got a slight piece of a Cody Franson pass to Jack Eichel, and the sophomore sensation booted it into his own goal at 19:10 of the second period. Logan Couture added third period insurance when he pushed a puck off of Lehner's stick after the goalie's ill-advised poke-check attempt, making it 4-1.
"That's one of those ones, you can't plan that. It was lucky," Haley said of his second goal of the season, and first game-winner of his career. "I thought we played pretty well, and luckily we got some bounces."
Regardless of the hockey gods looking favorably on the Sharks, they deserved to win this one based on their effort.
"We didn't win because of a bounce. We won because we earned that win, and we were the better team all night right from the drop of the puck," DeBoer said. "I think we knew the history, and we wanted to put an end to it."
"Buffalo's always found a way to kind of get one on us, for the most part," Pavelski said. "It's encouraging to see guys really stay with it."