Dynamic four-goal game shows Sabers’ Jeff Skinner is back as top scorer
In the two seasons since his scintillating 40-goal campaign in 2018-19, it appeared Sabers winger Jeff Skinner would never regain the scoring prowess he possessed throughout that career year. .
Skinner, who had a buoyant afternoon in Sunday’s 5-3 victory, scoring a career-high four goals and adding an assist, looked finished as an elite NHL scorer.
Last season, Skinner scored just seven times in 53 games and was retired three times. In 2019-20, he scored 11 of his 14 goals in the first 28 games and suffered a 23-game drought.
But Skinner, 29, had a terrific comeback season, and on Sunday against the ill-fated Montreal Canadiens he was dominant while hitting the 20-goal mark for the eighth time in his 12-year career.
“It’s awesome,” Skinner’s center Tage Thompson said on a Zoom call from the Bell Center. “It’s a great feeling for everyone in the room when he plays well. You can see how he is on and off the ice right now. He has confidence in himself and it’s fun to be there.
“He’s a great guy, he’s a hell of a player. When he’s hot, he’s hot.
He added: “He was all over the puck. He was relentless. I think our line did a good job harassing their D’s, forcing them into turnovers. When Skinny puts the puck in the slot, he’s pretty dangerous. So it was one of those nights for him where everything happened.
Right now, Skinner is hot. He has scored 12 times in the last 18 games, the 12th-most in the NHL in that streak. Sunday was his sixth outing this season in which he scored at least two goals. It was also his first five-point game in the NHL.
His four-goal effort was the Sabers’ first since ex-captain Jack Eichel had a career-best night on Nov. 16, 2019, and only the 14th in franchise history.
Skinner opened the scoring after 3:41 of play, deflecting a shot from defender Casey Fitzgerald by Canadiens goalie Samuel Montembeault into the slot. He scored above the left circle at 10:15 of the start of the second period, restoring the lead.
He scored his third goal and gave the Sabers a 4-3 lead when he crept into the slot and scored at 8:16 of the start of the third period. The puck went in when it touched his skate after Canadiens defenseman Jeff Petry pulled it down.
It took Skinner seconds to realize he had scored his sixth NHL hat trick and his first since Oct. 20, 2018.
“I didn’t know until the guys came to me,” said Skinner, who is in the third season of an eight-year, $72 million contract. “Yeah, I got a little lucky there.”
Skinner scored his fourth goal at 18:14 of the third period, firing a backhand shot from the slot and sealing the game. He was also on the ice when the Canadiens pulled Montembeault for an extra forward.
After a good start to the season, Skinner had prepared for a performance as smooth as Sunday’s.
“He just keeps getting better,” Sabers coach Don Granato said. “I thought he could have scored a few goals in the last few games, he just didn’t score. … Then tonight things went as they might have done a few nights earlier in the year. I mean, he could have had multi-goal games several nights or three-goal games several nights already.
Skinner and his linemates, Thompson and Alex Tuch, quickly developed splendid chemistry in about six weeks together. Tuch assisted on three of Skinner’s goals on Sunday. The only goal Skinner didn’t score was Thompson’s power play count, which he assisted on.
“We just do a good job reading to each other,” Skinner said of the trio. “When we have an opportunity on the forecheck, we have a second or third guy pretty close and if there’s a puck upside down, we’re able to get to it pretty quickly and we know where some are at. after the others.
“I think on a few goals there is a quick turnover, you try to force those turnovers and there is a quick transition. This is when you have the best opportunity to perhaps fight back and we were able to capitalize on a few today.
Sabers goaltender Craig Anderson made 29 saves, including 13 in the third period, for his 297th NHL victory, passing Ron Hextall at 40th on the all-time winning list.
“A credit to our guys in the third period, especially Craig Anderson, who stayed calm, never shook at all,” Granato said. “We had a few simple errors in the second that he obviously couldn’t bail us out of.
“But in the third he bailed us out a few times and just instilled a great calm to allow us not to tighten up, to keep pushing forward and getting through.”
Granato made a roster change on defense, striking out Mark Pysyk, the only Saber to play every game this season, so Jacob Bryson could return.
Bryson was ruled out for Thursday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Granato, who has said he will start the rotation of defenders, did not want to remove Fitzgerald or Mattias Samuelsson, two rookies.
“For Pysyk, he’s been great for us,” Granato said. “Really good for us. He is a leader for us. But Fitzgerald has been great recently. Samuelsson was good. (Rasmus Dahlin) and (Henri Jokiharju) were really good, our top pair.
The Canadiens, Stanley Cup finalists last season, have lost 10 straight games. They dropped all three games under interim coach Martin St. Louis.