BUFFALO – When their six-game home stand began, the Sabres had an opportunity to ignite a run and roar into playoff contention. Instead, they blew perhaps their best chance to make up ground against their Eastern Conference foes.
The Sabres finished their longest stint at KeyBank Center this season 3-3-0. Kind of meh.
Overall, having gone 5-3-0 in their last eight outings, they’ve showcased improvement, most notably defensively. Still, they must make up seven points and climb over five teams to reach the Eastern Conference’s final wild card spot.
In Saturday afternoon’s 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning before 18,246 fans, the Sabres gave up two goals in 52 seconds and trailed 2-0 by 7:06 mark.
Believe it or not, the Sabres defended well most of the game. The Lightning, however, capitalized on some early gaffes, scoring on its first two shots.
Anthony Cirelli grabbed the puck from center Casey Mittelstadt along the left boards, creating Nick Paul’s goal at 6:14 and ending goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen’s shutout streak at 164:09, the NHL’s longest this season. Tyler Motte made it 2-0 after stealing the puck from winger Alex Tuch inside the Lightning blue line and scoring a short-handed breakaway goal.
“A big, big part of the National Hockey League is managing the puck well,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “When you don’t, they got guys that can convert, and that’s usually what they do before you defend.
“Teams are pretty good once they get in their defensive structure in this league. We were when we got in our structure and limited it. But it’s tough to get in your structure when you turn the puck over the couple times we did.”
The Lightning’s first four shots on goal can be traced to Sabres miscues. Luukkonen did not make his first save until the 12:19 mark.
“Usually when we play these guys it’s pretty wide open for both of us, but both of us were pretty tight defensively and there wasn’t many opportunities,” said center Dylan Cozens, who scored the Sabres’ only goal in his return from an upper-body injury. “The opportunities they did get they capitalized on and we didn’t. It’s a tough one.”
It’s tough to swallow because the Sabres, having posted consecutive 3-0 wins earlier in the week against two lightweights, the San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks, seemed to have found a groove.
“A lot of it was not being able to start on time,” said Tuch, who couldn’t convert a breakaway early in the third period. “It was 13-13 shots after the second, so no one really had too much opportunities in the first couple periods. I thought we played an OK game.”
OK, of course, doesn’t cut it against the Lightning.
“The game plan going in there was just to make them work and make them defend and I think we let them off a little easy tonight, gave them kind of an easy game,” Sabres center Tage Thompson said.
After Cozens’ goal 13:52 into the second period cut the deficit to one, the Sabres had one of the NHL’s heavyweights on its heels much of the third. They pumped 15 shots on former Buffalo goalie Jonas Johansson during period. The Lighting, meanwhile, mustered just two.
“We knew we just had to get it behind them and work,” Cozens said. “Make them turn it over and spread the zone and just get pucks to the net and try to have guys around the net. We didn’t do a good enough job at that, though.”
When Michael Eyssimont went off for tripping at 11:56, the Sabres thought they’d have a two-minute power-play. But rookie winger Zach Benson was whistled for slashing 43 seconds later – he lightly poked for the puck as Johansson froze it – an odd penalty Granato disagreed with.
“Fifteen seconds into that power play, Thompson got completely wrapped up and help in the corner,” he said. “I get it. No call. You don’t put a team down five-on-three, I understand that. But they got a freebie right there.
“Then all of a sudden, I haven’t seen that called all year long. So I’m not an official, I’m just telling you what I saw. Tommer got wrapped up, tied up in the corner. It spent 20 seconds in the corner, wasn’t called. And then the poke that Benson made, I think it was called a slash, he was poking for the puck.”
The Sabres begin a three-game western road trip Tuesday against the Anaheim Ducks before entering their bye week and the NHL All-Star break.
“We want to be better, 3-3 is not good enough,” Thompson said. “But at the same time, we’ve got a road trip coming up here and we can make a big statement.”
Cozens and Sabres defenseman Mattias Samuelsson both returned from upper-body injuries Saturday.
Cozens missed one contest after getting injured in Monday’s win over San Jose. Samuelsson missed two games after entering concussion protocol in last Saturday’s 1-0 loss to the Vancouver Canucks.
With Cozens back, the Sabres scratched winger Eric Robinson (healthy).
They also scratched defensemen Erik Johnson, who missed his first game with an upper-body injury, and Jacob Bryson, who was returned to Rochester following the game and played for the Americans.
Defenseman Henri Jokiharju played despite being sore. Winger Jeff Skinner, who’s on injured reserve, missed his fifth straight game with an upper-body injury.
Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin played a game-high 28 minutes, 17 seconds in his 400th NHL appearance.
The Sabres play their next home game Feb. 6 against the Dallas Stars.