Columbus’ Sean Kuraly stands between Buffalo goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Owen Power on Tuesday as Kirill Marchenko’s shot goes in the net. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

Reeling Sabres implode in ugly loss to Blue Jackets: ‘We got to find it’

BUFFALO – Sabres captain Kyle Okposo spoke firmly following Tuesday’s embarrassing 9-4 loss, the low point of the Kevyn Adams-Don Granato era.

The Sabres, the veteran said, did not quit during an ugly second period in which the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets scored four times and opened up a stunning 7-1 lead.

Moments later, when a question was asked about the Sabres listening to their coaches, an angry Okposo immediately shot it down.

“Listen, I’m not gonna sit here and bash the coaches,” he said following the Sabres’ second straight loss and eighth in their last 11 games. “I’m not gonna talk about us quitting. I’m not gonna talk about Donny and us not listening. That’s not right. Donny has our full support. We are going play hard for Donny and that’s it.”

Well, the Sabres often looked listless as the Blue Jackets, who rank last in the Metropolitan Division, shellacked them. The same team that on Friday defeated the league-leading Vegas Golden Knights 5-2 on the road imploded after defenseman Rasmus Dahlin scored 30 seconds into the game.

The Sabres trailed 3-1 at the end of the first period and had mustered four shots on goal. Halfway through the second, after Kirill Marchenko’s natural hat trick put Columbus up 6-1, the Sabres had mustered just eight shots.

“We got to find it,” Okposo said. “It’s not an easy road that we’ve made for ourselves. It just seems that collectively we’re in the middle of a sophomore slump.”

The sorry display of hockey infuriated many fans in the crowd 14,888 in KeyBank Center, and they booed the Sabres at every opportunity.

“That’s 12 years for them, for sure,” Okposo said, referencing the Sabres’ NHL-record playoff drought. “Not all of that’s on us. It’s a lot frustration and that’s understandable. As a group, we bare, obviously, some of that responsibility from tonight. That’s a lot of deep (stuff) that’s pent up in the fans and that’s OK.”

Toward the end, some chanted, “Fire Donny.”

“Well, he’s not on the ice playing, right?” Sabres center Tage Thompson said of the frustration directed toward Granato. “So that’s on us. He can only do so much. He can put the guys on the ice, he can draw up the system on the boards. But he sends guys over the boards, and if they’re not doing their job, it’s not on him, it’s on us, and everyone in this room knows that. We got to take accountability for that.”

Is Granato, who’s in his third season as the Sabres’ permanent coach, concerned about his job?

“My concern is on making this group better tomorrow,” he said. “It was my concern from Day One, and it’ll stay my concern. We are going to make this team better. And I said it with absolute respect for our fan base. And when we go to work and I don’t sleep, it’s because of that, we care about that.

“We want to do good on that. And I still can stand here with confidence that we will.”

What gives Granato, whose Sabres fell one win shy of the playoffs last season, confidence they can turn it around?

“This this group is resilient,” he said. “They care. And those two those two traits will push them through.”

Still, less than a week before Christmas, the Sabres are in deep trouble. A team filled with skill and seemingly so much potential trails the Tampa Bay Lightning by six points for the Eastern Conference’s final wild card spot.

It might not sound like much, but five teams are ahead of the Sabres, who have played a league-high 33 games.

Clearly, the Sabres need some sort of shakeup in their lineup. Unfortunately, the NHL’s holiday roster freeze hit at midnight, so teams can’t make any trades until Dec. 28.

Having beaten Vegas, the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers in the past few weeks, they’re certainly capable of competing with the NHL’s heavyweights.

“We got to be consistent,” Thompson said. “It’s a mindset coming into games and very little things. But I think at the end of the day, it just comes down to competing and winning battles. I think they got momentum, and it’s tough when you’re chasing the game like that. We just kind of compound mistakes and it runs away from you.”

Okposo, Thompson, center Dylan Cozens scored the Sabres’ other goals.

Goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen allowed a goal 18 seconds after replacing Devon Levi in the second period.

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