Philadelphia – Taj Thompson didn’t bother to celebrate.
Thompson has done it with enough goalkeepers this season, and the Philadelphia Flyers have fought back so little, that displaying the skill seemed a chore. He got a pass from Jeff Skinner, skated untouched and beat rising goalkeeper Felix Sandstrom with a low shot to push the Buffalo Sibers’ lead to two goals late in the second half.
There’s nothing routine about what Thompson and Sabers accomplished in Don Granato’s first full season as a coach. Their 5-3 win over the Flyers on Sunday at Wells Fargo Center was the latest example of how the young core and surrounding veteran players have collectively improved this season.
The outlook for next season looks bright and that can’t be said in the last weeks of most seasons during the 11-year drought in the playoffs. Al-Saif (29-38-11) swept each of the two consecutive games, back and forth against Flyers (23-42-11) behind two goals from Victor Olofsson, one of them for Anders Björk and Thompson added to him. The second of the match, the nets are empty. Buffalo’s win was their second straight comeback after only allowing a goal at 1:18 in the game on Sunday.
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“That’s great for our group,” Bjork said. “It shows our maturity. You can tell we don’t feel like giving up. When teams score a goal or two against us, we still have confidence that we’ve grown during this year. I think that’s a huge step up from the start of the year when we were leaving matches, when teams were You score a goal or two fast on us.”
With his 19th and twentieth goal of the season, the latter of which gave Buffalo a 3-2 lead in the second half, Olofsson hit a new career high in points (44). He’s one of five non-rookie sabers to reach a new personal best in points this season, joining Thompson, Rasmus Dahlin, Rasmus Asplund and Henry Joqueharjo.
Sippers have four top scorers with 20 goals in the same season for the first time since they were scored in 2017-18 by Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane. But the difference is the current group thriving under Granato – Thompson (36 goals), Skinner (31), Olofsson (20) and Kyle Okposo (20) – will be here next season. Kane went before the trade deadline in 2018 and O’Reilly left that summer.
For perspective, Thompson’s 36 goals matched a career high of 36 goals scored by Eichel during the 2019-20 season. And Thompson did so despite moving to the center from the wing in training camp. Olofsson, 26, reached the 20-goal mark after suffering a wrist injury that affected his left-hand shot.
There were no issues with his best weapon on Sunday, as the winger scored two goals in a one-off power play from the right circle to help Buffalo recover from an early 1-0 deficit.
“It’s all big for us as coaches, to see these people succeed individually, and to have individual rewards,” said Granato. “Knowing 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 players like that, they come to work every day, to train or play… When they score, we are very excited for them personally” .
Sunday’s strong Sabers entered number four in the NHL since March 17, a product of the club finally earning scoring options in both units. And another notable success story in the first season of Granato starred again, in every case no less, against the Flyers.
Dahlin became the seventh different defensive man in franchise history to reach the 50-point mark with a pair of key passes in the first period. Still only 22 years old, Dahlin has a top 10 goal scorer while averaging 23:58 of icy time this season.
“He’s an incredible player,” Sibers defender Matthias Samuelsson said. “I think he’s a star in this league.”
The Flyers have averaged 2-10 in their last 12 games and have lost several veterans, including ex-Cybers defender Rasmus Rästulinn. Sandstrom, who was playing in his third NHL game career, looked over-the-top early in the game and received little help from his teammates. Philadelphia made a terrible line change that led to Björk’s goal.
But Philadelphia provided a test for Buffalo. The Flyers tied the score 2-2 only at a 1:20 ratio in the second half and again threatened in the third when Zach McEwen made it 4-3. But Cypress keeper Dustin Tokarski played well enough to help his teammates survive, finishing 32 stops to win. Dahlin, Skinner and Peyton Cripps finished with two passes.
The Flyers, like most teams at the bottom of the NHL standings, do not have a clear path to competition. They are expected to hire another full-time coach this summer and could make more significant changes to the roster. Meanwhile, the Sabers had another game in which their young core showed how far they have come since the start of the season and continue to build for next season.
“With our experience here at this stretch, I think we play hockey well and win some games,” Samuelsson said. “With this, you learn what you have to do and what each late person’s role is in the game and how to turn the clock.”
Here are other notes from the game:
The celebration was muted, but there’s no doubt that Siber’s second goal of the match, Björk’s fifth this season and first since December 14, was important for the 25-year-old winger. He was a healthy scratch in 19 of the team’s previous 21 games, including 17 in a row, and needs management to show he can fill the bottom six in the final season of his contract in 2022-23. A bad change to Philadelphia’s streak and a quick pass from Dahlin quickly prompted Björk to break up which gave Sears a 2-1 lead with 2:26 remaining in the first period.
A role in the power play isn’t imminent for Owen Power. Someone will have to perform badly enough to open a place for the 19-year-old defending man. Cypress’ solid performance has scored two goals in three of his last four games. Olofsson’s first goal on Sunday tied the score 1-1 at 8:36 in the match.
The Force gained more valuable experience against the best Flyers players. He finished with a -3 rating in 22:09 of ice time, skating with equal power and killing a penalty. There were inevitable mistakes during his acclimatization to the National Hockey League, but he also showed poise and was not shaken yet by the early goal against him.
Samuelsson was outstanding again for the Sabers, leading the team in icy time (26:05) and blocking shots (4). He was also credited with a five hit and a potential 2-on-0 thwart in the first period using his reach to take the puck off Scott Lawton’s baton. This was Samuelsson’s first NHL game in Philadelphia. His father, as Jill, played nine seasons as a defenseman for the Flyers and worked with the organization in various coaching roles since 1999-2000. He is currently the player development coach for the team.
“Samuelson is a monster out there again,” Granato smiled.
The Sabers will face the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center Thursday at 7 p.m.