BUFFALO – The five triumphs in six games, the recent three-game winning streak, it was probably all just a tease. At this point, the 14th-place Sabres can’t be postseason contenders, can they? Are they really going to leapfrog six teams and nab the last spot?
In their second straight home loss, a weak 4-1 decision to the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday, the Sabres lacked oomph, taking a season-high seven minor penalties while generating little offensively inside the First Niagara Center.
Against legendary goalie Martin Brodeur and the Devils, a lock-it-down, grind-it-out team, that’s a recipe for disaster.
Skill players sat on the bench as the Devils enjoyed one man advantage after another, capitalizing twice.
Shortly after a two-man advantage expired, Petr Sykora scored the power-play winner 1:44 into the third period. But Tuesday was Ilya Kovalchuk’s night, as the superstar tallied three goals and four points.
The Russian’s power-play score late in the first period opened the scoring, setting the tone.
Blame the penalties, which frustrated the capacity crowd of 18,690 fans.
“Our discipline wasn’t good enough,” Sabres captain Jason Pominville said. “We’re not going to win games when you take seven penalties. That’s a lot of time a lot of different guys aren’t on the ice. I think it hurt us big time. Our discipline is something we take pride in.”
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff added: “It gave them energy and it took a lot of energy out of our players.”
Ruff called half of the infractions “just flat-out bad penalties.”
Derek Roy, for example, took two tripping penalties. Some calls came in the offensive zone, big no-nos.
“We put ourselves down for a number of minutes against a team where you’re not going to get a lot of opportunities,” said Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, who made 27 saves. “You got to take all the time you can creating. We had to defend a lot.”
Still, the Sabres remained in the contest, tying it 17:19 into the second period when Pominville’s pass from below the goal line hit Dainius Zubrus and deflected in.
But the Devils roared right back, and the Sabres ended the period down two men.
When Sykora’s shot from the right circle took what Miller called a “Bandits bounce,” meaning lacrosse-like, the Devils had full control.
Let them get up and you’re probably doomed.
“Against that team … we haven’t had a lot of chances,” Ruff said. “They’re a big team. They’re a heavy team. We knew that we’re going to have to use our speed to get through them. I thought at times we did. The big thing would’ve been getting the lead, forcing them out of their game. We didn’t.”
The Sabres’ brief offensive resurgence appears to be an anomaly. While they scored 10 goals over two games recently, including six Wednesday against Boston, they have only four in the three tilts since and just nine in the six games sandwiched between the two big contests.
“We have to find ways to generate,” Miller said. “Brodeur, he can sit back and play a methodical game and read every play. … We have to be creative and get inside and out pucks off him and make him spread out a little bit. The times we did do that we had some chances.”
Not too many, though, so the 39-year-old Brodeur, who made 29 saves, easily earned his 33rd win against the Sabres.
Kovalchuk put the Devils up 3-1 at 9:47, redirecting Adam Henrique’s pass in the slot. He sealed it with an empty-netter.
Ruff, meanwhile, couldn’t endure being the “eye in the sky” anymore, so the coach, despite three broken ribs, moved down from the press box and back behind the bench following three games up top.
He sported a special “flak jacket” someone concocted for him underneath his suit.
“I wasn’t exactly enjoying myself upstairs, I can tell you that,” Ruff said Tuesday morning. “You miss the intensity of the game. I mean, sitting up there’s fine. But there’s a lot of things you miss out on.”
Ruff, who still can’t yell, got through the game fine. Assistant coach Teppo Numminen stayed behind the bench.
“I feel better than I thought I would feel,” Ruff said after the game. “I feel good right now. So I have no issues.”