Sabres rookie Jack Eichel (15) rushes the puck Tuesday with Florida's Dmitry Kulikov in pursuit. ©2016, Dan Hickling, Olean Times Herald

Sabres fall apart early in loss to Panthers

BUFFALO – Following a dreadful first period Tuesday in which the Sabres imploded and fell behind 3-0 to the upstart Florida Panthers, some frustrated fans booed for one of the few times this season.

Not long ago, games like the Sabres’ wretched 7-4 loss inside the First Niagara Center – a contest hardly as close as the score might indicate – were gladly accepted by a fan base that valued a high draft pick over winning.

But these days, with coveted rookie Jack Eichel and several other new acquisitions often playing well, the Sabres are still one of the NHL’s worst outfits.

“That was an embarrassing effort to have at home,” Sabres defenseman Josh Gorges said. “It’s unacceptable.”

Tuesday’s loss before 18,521 fans, the Sabres’ league-worst 19th at home (9-16-3), was one of their worst defeats this season.

“Just not ready to give the effort and the compete and the attention to detail you need to have to win any game, let alone the top team in your division, and it’s disappointing,” said Gorges, whose team is 1-7-2 in its last 10 home outings.

Against the first-place Panthers, their Atlantic Division rival, the Sabres fell behind 2-0 by the 10:45 mark. After Robin Lehner allowed another goal at 19:35, the fans serenaded the goalie with a Bronx cheer when he stopped and easy shot seconds later.

“I’m not faulting the goaltender at all,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “I probably should’ve sparked a change.”

But Bylsma stuck with Lehner, and Alex Petrovic made 4-0 just 22 seconds in the second period. Backup Chad Johnson then replaced Lehner, who had allowed only two goals in five straight starts.

“I think in that situation when they made the goalie change, it has to wake us up as a team,” Gorges said. “It had nothing to do with our goaltending. We didn’t play good enough.”

The Sabres actually woke up briefly. Thanks to two quick power-play goals from Sam Reinhart – his 15th and 16th scores – they cut it to 4-2 by the 5:04 mark. Then Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo deflected rookie Dan Catenacci’s shot over an open cage shortly after.

“You kind of throw your head back a little bit with the missed opportunity over the cage,” Bylsma said.

Sabres captain Brian Gionta added: “We felt like we had that momentum going.”

They lost minutes it later when Brandon Pirri restored the Panthers’ three-goal lead.

With the game getting out of reach, Evander Kane, perhaps the Sabres’ most natural goal scorer, single-handedly tried to ignite his teammates and the crowd by dropping Petrovic again minutes after pummeling the defenseman.

“He’s a big boy,” Kane said about the 6-foot-4 Petrovic. “We were down 3-0 there, and I thought I’d try to get the crowd back into it a little bit and kind of set the tone moving forward.”

When Kane skated to the penalty box and held up two fingers to Petrovic for his two victories, the crowd roared.

“I liked the fight and the determination and the kick from Evander,” Bylsma said.

But Kane and Petrovic weren’t done. Incredibly, they scrapped a third time in the third period, earning them ejections. Two players hadn’t fought each other three times in one game since Bob Probert and Jody Shelley on Jan. 10, 2002.

Kane’s final stat line Tuesday: one goal, three decisions and 29 penalty minutes. Believe it or not, the winger had only 10 fights in his first 404 NHL games and zero this season.

“I mean, he brought it,” Gorges said about Kane. “It’s never an easy job to drop your gloves and go toe-to-toe with somebody, let alone do it three times. That’s a big effort.”

The Sabres played without center Johan Larsson, who was hurt during the morning skate, and winger Zemgus Girgensons (lower body). Winger Marcus Foligno (lower body) returned after missing one game.

Instead of recalling a forward, which would’ve forced them to place someone on injured reserve, the Sabres dressed seven defensemen and mostly used Jake McCabe as a winger on the fourth line beside Catenacci and center David Legwand.

Reinhart, a winger all season, also shifted back to center, his natural position.

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