PITTSBURGH – Center Jack Eichel said the Sabres played scared to lose. Winger Sam Reinhart said they sat on their lead late. Goalie Robin Lehner said they let the potent Penguins keep attacking them.
The sound bites following Tuesday’s wild 5-4 overtime loss to the Penguins sounded familiar, like throwbacks to last season, when the Sabres often imploded late.
While the Sabres have changed coaches and much of their personnel this season, they haven’t still matured enough to win a tight contest like Tuesday’s inside PPG Paints Arena.
“We earned that lead going into the third, there’s a reason why we have it,” Reinhart said following his one-goal, three-point effort. “That’s probably the best team in the world over the last few years. We play with the mindset we’re going to go take it to them and we play with the lead.
“We get it and we sit back too much, and the more opportunities you give that team, they’re going to score more times than not.”
For a while, it appeared the Sabres would upset the defending Stanley Cup champions. They pounced on the Penguins early, going up 2-0 by the 16:53 mark before the standing-room only crowd of 18,438.
After Lehner’s gaffe created Pittsburgh’s first goal late in the period, Eichel scored 16 seconds into the second, his first goal in eight games.
The Sabres blew their two-goal lead late in the second period. Still, they responded, getting a late power-play goal from winger Benoit Pouliot.
“The first two periods, I thought we tried to take it to them,” Eichel said. “The third period, I thought we sat back and let them take it to us.”
Winger Phil Kessel’s one-timer tied it at 13:49. Then superstar Sidney Crosby, who scored his first goal in 12 games earlier, set up winger Conor Sheary’s winner just 16 seconds into overtime.
“The disappointment comes from we changed our game, and we had no business changing our game,” Reinhart said.
The Sabres have lost two straight overtime games and three overall.
Despite frittering away a late lead, coach Phil Housley disagreed with the assessment the Sabres played differently in the third period.
“When you look at a team like they have, they’ve got some highly skilled forwards and I thought we made the right decisions,” Housley said. “You knew they were going to have a push. I thought we did a lot of good things tonight.”
The best news for the Sabres might’ve been Eichel and Reinhart busting out of their slumps. In addition to scoring his first goal since Oct. 21, Eichel created linemate Evander Kane’s goal.
“Hopefully that will jumpstart me,” Eichel said.
Meanwhile, Reinhart’s first goal in 11 games, just his third this season and first since Oct. 17, made it 2-0. He also assisted on Kane’s goal.
In between, Penguins defenseman Ian Cole wicked open-ice hit laid Reinhart out. Eichel, Reinhart’s close friend and roommate, immediately threw off his gloves and challenged Cole. Kane then jumped in.
Eichel and Kane received roughing minors.
“It just seemed like a pretty hard hit, Sam seems pretty vulnerable,” Eichel said. “I think that’s just part of hockey, you got to step up and try to send a message we’re not going to let our guys get liberties taken on them. It’s good to see. We got to stick together.”
Reinhart added: “That’s this group in here and that’s the kind of guy he is. He’s done a really good job this year of coming in and being that guy.”
Housley loved the response.
“It shows this group is a very tight group and they’re pulling for each other,” he said.
Despite some positives, Housley had difficulty handling the loss.
“The bottom line is we didn’t win the hockey game,” he said. “We put ourselves in a position to win a hockey game going into the third period with a one-goal lead, we’ve got to be able to shut teams down. Good teams, they’re going to create, but we’ve got to rely on our play without the puck and have urgency to protect the lead and then try to take advantage of mistakes the other team makes.”
The Penguins have a 13-game point streak (12-0-1) against the Sabres.