Tage Thompson (72) and Jeff Skinner try to score on Detroit goalie Alex Lyon on Thursday. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres fall behind early again, lose to Red Wings: ‘I didn’t like our game’

BUFFALO – Well, it’s hard to say the Sabres lack consistency. Their win-one, lose-one start feels like a distant memory. These days, count on them falling behind early and losing.

In Tuesday’s 5-3 loss to the Detroit Red Wings, their fourth straight setback and fifth in the last six games, the reeling Sabres trailed 2-0 by the 8:25 mark.

If you’re keeping track, opponents have outscored the Sabres an astounding 13-1 in the first period during their last six outings. They’re 1-5-0 during that wretched stretch.

“We’re professional athletes, this is what we do,” Sabres captain Kyle Okposo said. “You got to be able to give it up every game, regardless of what’s going on. I’ve been through streaks in the past where they look like there’s no end in sight, and this isn’t one of those. That’s not where we’re at. Today, I didn’t like our game today at all.”

There was little to like until late. The Red Wings pounced on the Sabres after the opening faceoff, and Joe Veleno nearly scored 19 seconds in. The Sabres couldn’t, however, hold them off much longer.

Dylan Larkin beat goalie Eric Comrie at 3:40. When Robby Fabbri made it 2-0 at 8:25, the Sabres had one shot on goal.

The Red Wings opened up a 4-0 lead in KeyBank Center before the Sabres staged a late comeback.

The 10-14-2 Sabres are already five points out of the Eastern Conference’s last wild card spot. With 22 points, they stand seventh in the eight-team Atlantic Division. They were 12-13-1 (25 points) through 26 games last season, when they fell one win short of making the playoffs.

While they’re not too far off their pace from a year ago, they’ve been in a massive rut since roaring back Nov. 24 to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, save for a road win over the New York Rangers.

The Sabres, as their penchant for wilting under adversity early in games illustrates, have become a fragile team.

“It shouldn’t be and it’s something we got to address, something that needs to be fixed,” Okposo said of the group’s fragility. “I mean, it’s a big boy league. We’re coming in with expectations. You come in and everybody’s talking about the playoffs and you got to go perform. And we’re not doing that right now.

“It’s frustrating, but that’s where we’re at, and nobody’s going to throw us a lifeline here. We’re going to have to do it ourselves. It’s going to come from this room and the people that are in it.”

So, what gives coach Don Granato belief the Sabres can get out of this mess?

“They work, they care, they’re competitors,” he said. “What I see is a little bit of fear … and that comes across as hesitation, that comes across as second-guessing yourself. That’s what I see. When I put it in the context of teams I’ve been with and players I’ve been with, you go through ups and downs and you’re challenged. We’re a team that’s in a challenging spot and got to fight through it.”

The Sabres nearly fought through Tuesday’s struggles and tied the game.

When defenseman Rasmus Dahlin scored late in Tuesday’s second period, it almost felt a little meaningless, like a garbage-time goal.

The power-play goal narrowed the margin to 4-1, and a comeback hardly felt imminent.

Yes, more 21 minutes remained in the game. But the Red Wings had mostly dominated the Sabres from the get-go.

Then center Casey Mittelstadt scored 8:20 into the third period. Suddenly, they had life. Winger Jeff Skinner’s power-play goal at 11:37 got them within 4-3, igniting the crowd of 14,800 fans, many of whom had earlier booed the Sabres off the ice.

What changed?

“Clock moving and their back was to the wall and their mentality changed, obviously,” Granato said. “The puck pressure, systematically, way better at pressuring pucks. Way more aggressive and assertive handing off the pressure, supporting the next guy to pressure, and more confidence with the puck. But everything had to do, again, with the psyche and freeing your mind to be aggressive.”

With less than two minutes left, the Sabres had two prime chances in front of goalie Alex Lyon during a power play with Comrie pulled before Larkin’s empty-net goal sealed it.

Moritz Seider and Michael Rasmussen scored for the Red Wings in the second period.

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