BUFFALO – The Sabres ended the most critical week of their season having lost all four games and earned just a single point.
With barely a month left, they’ve dropped seven points behind out of a wild card spot and have two other teams ahead of them. Right now, the chances of them roaring up the standings and ending their 11-year playoff drought are slim.
Still, fresh off Saturday afternoon’s 2-1 overtime loss, a game in which they outplayed the New York Rangers, there are reasons for them to be optimistic.
After allowing 10 goals Thursday, they enjoyed one of their sturdiest defensive efforts this season, clamping down and limiting the Rangers to 26 shots, including just 12 through two periods. They gave up 49 shots Thursday.
The Rangers scored both of their goals – Artemi Panarin’s power-play winner 2:02 into overtime and Patrick Kane’s second-period tally – off deflections.
The Sabres, meanwhile, lost some of the hesitation in their game and played freely again, pumping 33 shots on goalie Igor Shesterkin. In the waning minutes of regulation, they couldn’t convert three splendid chances to go ahead.
“Especially after last game, we need to play that way, period,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “Tighter defensively, pay attention to more structure that way. And then on the flip side, I just watched three chances we had. … I felt we still generated enough to win a hockey game.”
The Sabres have won just once in their last seven outings (1-5-1). Realistically, if they replicate Saturday’s effort, they’ll start winning. They also played well enough to win Monday’s 3-2 home loss to the Edmonton Oilers and Tuesday’s 3-2 road defeat to the New York Islanders.
“The way we’ve played, I think that one has got a lot more good things in it,” said Sabres winger Jeff Skinner, who opened the scoring 7:52 into the second period. “We just keep building on that.”
After losing Tuesday’s contest on a late disputed goal, some Sabres acknowledged the frustration carried into Thursday’s ugly 10-4 loss to the Dallas Stars.
Now, the Sabres experienced another potentially devastating loss, albeit in a much different fashion. Following a rough opening 10 minutes, they found a groove and rarely let up.
Panarin scored from the bottom of the left circle after Adam Fox’s shot deflected off Sabres winger Zemgus Girgensons’ stick in the slot. Kane scored when his centering pass from the right wing bounced off Sabres defenseman Owen Power’s skate.
“There’s been a little bit of a tough stretch of games and we gave up a lot of goals,” Sabres goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen said. “This one is real tough because we played such a good game today. How tight we played defense today, how good we were at both ends. It stinks to lose this one.”
The Sabres created offense without shirking their defensive responsibilities. Granato said while they’re not playing fearlessly – “There’s a whole other level for us,” he said – they’ve buckled down defensively and trusted the offense will materialize.
“Sometimes when you push the defensive initiative, you lose scoring touch,” he said. “So we don’t want to over push there, but these guys have to continue that. I think they will.”
Luukkonen looked in control throughout his 28th appearance, making 24 saves and allowing just one goal in regulation for the first time this season.
Granato credits Craig Anderson and Eric Comrie, the other goalies on the roster, and assistant coach Mike Bales for buoying the rookie’s development.
“He looked very comfortable in net,” Granato said. “And again, we have three goalies. We talk about how challenging or difficult it is … and those other two guys have helped and brought UPL along incredibly well. And Upie’s done a great job, too.
“But when I think of Upie and his performance and how confident he is in the net, I think of the support he has of the other two guys and the coaching staff. (Assistant coach) Mike Bales really works with those guys every day. …
“(Luukkonen) had to be ready at the drop of the puck and not feel any anxiety, and he was dialed in from the get-go. He played solid, very efficient. He didn’t have to play great, he was just big when he needed to be big.”
Notes: Sabres center Tyson Jost, who played his 400th NHL game, appeared to score in the second period after Shesterkin telegraphed a pass to him outside the New York blue line. Winger Victor Olofsson, however, hadn’t left the zone and was offside, negating the goal. … The Sabres fell to 13-18-3 at home this season. … Panarin scored with defenseman Rasmus Dahlin off for hooking. … Skinner is one goal shy of his sixth 30-goal season. … The Sabres scratched defensemen Jacob Bryson and Kale Clague and Comrie (all healthy). … The Sabres begin a three-game road trip Monday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. … Saturday’s game was the first between the Sabres and Rangers this season. They have two more meetings over the final month.