New Jersey’s Miles Wood and Buffalo’s Brandon Montour battle in front of goalie Linus Ullmark on Thursday. ©2021, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres battle back against Devils, still lose: ‘We just didn’t have it’

BUFFALO – A few weeks ago, an early two-goal deficit like the Sabres experienced Thursday against the New Jersey Devils would’ve been insurmountable.

They would’ve folded and gone down meekly.

But over the past week or so, the Sabres have morphed into, well, a somewhat normal team. Yes, they’re still one of the NHL’s lightweights, but they’re much more competitive.

While Thursday’s 6-3 loss inside KeyBank Center ended their two-game winning streak and five-game point streak, they roared back and tied the contest at 3 after falling behind 3-1.

“That’s just a sign of us having some more confidence that we’ve generated over the past week and a half or so, just making little, subtle plays,” winger Kyle Okposo said on a Zoom call of the Sabres battling back when they did not have their best.

Still, the Sabres can only take so much solace in tying the game. The Devils, who on Wednesday traded two of their best players, forwards Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac, outworked them.

“For some good reasons we were able to hang in there,” interim Sabres coach Don Granato said. “But they were hungrier all over the ice than we were. That was the difference. And yes, we executed enough to keep the game tight.”

Sabres winger Tage Thompson scored a power-play goal in the second before winger Jeff Skinner tied it later in the period.

Then the Sabres, like so many other times this season, generated little offense late with the game on the line. They sprinkled only two shots on Devils goalie Aaron Dell in the third period.

Jesper Boqvist’s goal 8:45 into the third period broke the 3-3 tie.

“You got to try to use that, 3-3 game, you don’t have a good 40 minutes and you’ve got a chance to win a game, we just got to come out and have a better third, and we just didn’t have it tonight,” Okposo said.

The Sabres started off well Thursday, taking a 1-0 lead 53 into the game when winger Victor Olofsson converted defenseman Henri Jokiharju’s pass in front.

Then they quickly fell behind, allowing New Jersey’s Pavel Zacha to score two power-play goals by the 3:47 mark.

After winning 5-3 Tuesday in New Jersey, the Sabres had optional practice Wednesday and an optional skate Thursday morning. Not surprisingly, they looked sloppy.

Granato regrets not having a full-team session.

“We didn’t play well enough … and you think of, ‘What could you have done different?’ he said. “And that was a big one. You’re gauging that rest and work ration and we didn’t respond the way we needed to with the rest, clearly.”

The Sabres, who have 17 games left this season, have a stiff challenge over the last month. They play the four East Divisions heavyweights positioned in a playoff spot – the Boston Bruins, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals – 14 times, starting tonight at home against the Capitals.

The Sabres have one total win against those opponents this season. They won a 4-3 shootout Jan. 24 in Washington.

“If you asked anybody to start the year if you would be surprised if either of those four teams won a Stanley Cup, you’d say no,” Okposo said. “We have to know that they’re a veteran group, they’re a mature group, they’re not going to be teams that get away from their structure at any point for any reason.

“Whether they give up a goal or they’re down two, they’re just going to keep playing the same way, and that’s something that as a young team, as a growing team, as a team that’s trying to form our own identity, that we have to take some more of that aspect into our own game.”

Okposo assisted on Olofsson’s goal and has compiled nine points in his last nine games. Rasmus Dahlin’s assist on Skinner’s goal was his 100th point in his 180th NHL appearance. He’s the second-fastest Sabres defenseman who debuted with the team to reach the 100-point mark, trailing only Phil Housley, who needed only 106 outings.

Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark made 32 saves.

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