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Okposo, Girgensons shine in what could be their final week with Sabres

Rasmus Dahlin Buffalo Sabres Rasmus Dahlin - The Canadian Press

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — If this, in fact, becomes Kyle Okposo's and Zemgus Girgensons’ final week in Buffalo, the longest-serving players on the Sabres’ roster provided one more reminder of their understated leadership and desire to turn the franchise into a winner.

Off the ice, neither was willing to discuss whether they’re open to being dealt with the NHL’s trade deadline approaching on Friday. Their preference is to not create a distraction for a young team attempting to make one last-gasp to climb back into the playoff race.

On the ice, the two spurred a 7-2 win over Vegas on Saturday night, by scoring critical goals to help settle a team in jeopardy of sagging after blowing a 2-0 lead.

Girgensons, an assistant captain, scored the go-ahead goal by driving to the net late in the second period. Okposo, the team’s captain, followed in providing Buffalo a two-goal cushion by converting a rebound 2:20 into the third period.

On a team brimming with young talent, leave it to the old guard to produce in the clutch.

“Well, yeah, you know what you’re going to get from us. We’re going to play hard and did that,” Okposo said, referring to himself and Girgensons, “It was just fun to have a game like that.”

And it might be a fitting farewell for two players in the final years of their contracts, who have known mostly losing on a franchise already in jeopardy of extending its NHL-record playoff drought to a 13th season.

“My goal? No different. You’re just playing it game by game,” Girgensons said, referring to the distractions of trade talk. "I’ve been in this situation plenty of times. So it’s nothing new to me. I don't really get too stressed out anymore.”

Girgensons and Okposo both said they've informed GM Kevyn Adams of their thoughts regarding getting traded, and prefer to keep those conversations private.

It’s on Adams, then, to walk a fine line in determining what’s best for this franchise, and for two players who because of their loyalty to the Sabres perhaps deserve to be rewarded by providing them a true chance at competing in the postseason.

Girgensons, Buffalo’s first-round pick in the 2012 draft, has appeared in 668 games over his 10-year NHL career without a playoff appearance. The 30-year-old from Latvia is so fond of his adopted home of Buffalo, he passed up signing elsewhere as a free agent last summer in believing the Sabres were on the cusp of a breakthrough after falling two points short of a playoff berth last season.

The 35-year-old Okposo is in his eighth season with Buffalo, and made clear last spring that his only two choices were retirement or playing for the Sabres before re-signing on a one-year deal.

Okposo has at least enjoyed the benefit of the playoffs, with 24 postseason games played during his nine-year tenure with the New York Islanders. The most recent occurred on May 8, 2016, when New York was eliminated following a 4-0 second-round series loss in Game 5 to Tampa Bay.

Upon signing a seven-year, $42 million contract with Buffalo that summer, Okposo considered himself one of the final pieces to the puzzle in seeing the potential in joining a team that already included the likes of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Ryan O’Reilly.

Eight years later, O’Reilly was shipped to St. Louis, where he won a Cup in 2019. Eichel is now with Vegas, where he won a Cup last year. And Reinhart is in Florida on a team that lost in the Cup Final to Vegas.

On Saturday night, Okposo expressed pride in how the Sabres followed an inconsistent first three months of the season by finally reaching a new plateau of competitiveness in winning five of six.

“It was definitely a mature response,” Okposo said. “What we’re doing is going out and playing the games and believing in what we’re doing.”

Girgensons praised the Sabres for their effort despite the playoff math working against them.

“There’s definitely no quit,” Girgensons said. “No one’s talked about us being out of it, no.”

After addressing reporters, Okposo headed for the hallway to catch up with Eichel, who is nearing his return after missing 19 games with a knee injury.

The two, who became good friends in Buffalo, enjoyed a lengthy chat before Eichel, in street clothes, headed for the Golden Knights bus, and Okposo — in a sweat-soaked T-shirt and shorts — returned to the locker room uncertain of what the remainder of the week will bring.