BUFFALO – The barrage mercifully ended about 12 minutes into the first period, when the Sabres, having been torched for four goals by the Toronto Maple Leafs, settled down and started stopping their opponent.
Much of the buzz prior to Tuesday’s 6-3 loss at KeyBank Center centered on the Sabres, one of the NHL’s up-and-coming young teams, and their pursuit of a playoff spot.
For the first time in more than a decade, the Sabres and Leafs would be playing a late-season game with high stakes for both clubs. In a season full of progress, it was another sign the Sabres, who haven’t made the postseason since 2011, are maturing.
Then the game started, and the Leafs throttled them. Ex-Sabres star Ryan O’Reilly scored on the Leafs’ first two shots at 3:51 and 4:28, his first two goals with his new team.
John Tavares, his linemate, made it 3-0 at 7:14, prompting Sabres coach Don Granato to use his timeout. His team still did not have a shot on goal.
After winger Jeff Skinner registered the Sabres’ first shot at the 10-minute mark, Michael Bunting scored at 12:04, and Granato yanked goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and replaced him with Craig Anderson.
The partisan Leafs crowd of 18,641 fans ate it all up.
“Horrendous start,” Sabres winger Alex Tuch said. “Back on our heels, just mistakes, and that’s … an offensive super team. They’ve got a lot of star power over there. You’re going to make defensive mistakes, you’re going to allow time and space, they’re going to capitalize on it.”
Granato said “there wasn’t a guy out there that looked like themselves and didn’t fight it tonight.”
“That was as ugly a segment as we’ve had in a building that was challenging in its own right and you’re reeling and you can reel,” he said of the wretched start. “But there was 48 minutes after that. What we needed to see was compete. That got better.”
Still, the Sabres were cooked.
While they’re still in solid shape – they’re four points out of the last wild card spot with games in hand on all the teams above them – there are troubling signs.
The Sabres have been downright awful at home this month, losing all three games and getting outscored 18-6. Overall, they’re 11-15-2 at KeyBank Center this season.
Their team defense has recently been terrible. Tuesday marked the fourth time in the last six games they’ve allowed at least five goals.
Granato, who hadn’t pulled a goalie all season, began his postgame comments by saying “this was not on UPL.” He noted the NHL All-Star break and bye week earlier this month has played a factor in the porous defense.
Tuch, who scored his 100th NHL goal in the third period, said “we’re not really helping our goaltending out at all.”
“It’s a lot easier when all five or six guys on the ice are working in a cohesive unit,” he said. “We weren’t doing that in the first period. One guy was working, the other two guys or three guys were watching behind him, giving them too much time and space when they were supporting each other all over the ice. Honestly, it looked really easy for them out there. We allowed it to be easy for them.”
The Sabres crept within 5-3 late in the game, getting third-period goals from Tuch, Skinner and winger Jack Quinn.
“We pushed them back, made them a little bit hesitant, put pucks deep and got a lot of shots on net,” Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin said. “But we got to do it earlier.”
Tuch said the Sabres “just worked” late.
“We just put our head down,” he said. “There’s nothing we could have done about the previous 40 minutes. We just wanted to go in and work and you never know what could happen.”
O’Reilly, who was acquired Friday, completed his hat trick and sealed the win by scoring an empty-net goal at 18:50.
“Definitely feels a little better than other buildings, for sure,” he said of having a three-goal performance in Buffalo. “But … just to get on the board like that, to contribute tonight, get the first one out of the way, too, it’s a good feeling right now.”
William Nylander scored the Leafs’ other goal during a second-period power play. Mitch Marner recorded five assists, tying a franchise record for a road game. O’Reilly also added an assist.
The Sabres begin a two-game road trip Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning. They won’t practice today because of weather-related travel concerns.