Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen allowed seven goals Sunday afternoon. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres fall behind early, get clobbered by Bruins: ‘We believe we’re still in it’

BUFFALO – The Sabres’ regression over the past three weeks has been startling. After positioning themselves to compete for their first playoff spot in 12 years, they’ve imploded, dropping nine of their last 11 games.

The Sabres aren’t just losing; opponents are annihilating them. Sunday afternoon’s ugly 7-0 loss to the Boston Bruins marked the third time in their last 10 outings they’ve allowed seven or more goals and lost by at least six.

Since Feb. 28, the Sabres have allowed an NHL-high 52 goals while compiling a wretched 2-7-2 mark. After showcasing one of the league’s top offenses for five months, they’ve scored only 28 goals.

The Sabres were never in Sunday’s contest. The heavyweight Bruins, who throttled them 7-1 on March 2 in Boston, scored 15 seconds in and led 3-0 by the 11:40 mark.

“That first one is on our line,” Sabres winger Zemgus Girgensons said. “That can’t happen to start the game. We’ve talked about staying five-tight and we just have gotten away from those little details.”

Following years of futility, progressing enough to be in a late-season playoff race represents significant progress. But with 13 games left, the Sabres trail the Pittsburgh by six points for the Eastern Conference’s second wild card spot.

Making up that ground would be daunting if they were playing well. Given their recent exploits, they look finished.

“We believe we’re still in it, but we got to actually go out and play,” Sabres center Dylan Cozens said of the playoff chase.

Most of the Sabres, of course, have never played meaningful NHL games in March. They’re the league’s youngest team, and lately they’ve looked like it.

“This is a different time of year, expectations rise,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “That’s a new territory. It’s good that we’re in that territory. What we have to do is make sure we benefit from it. We’re going to be challenged greater psychologically and physically this time of year. You’ve got to learn to let go. Sometimes you can’t let go fast enough to get to react.”

Early last week, the Sabres seemed to settle down and find a groove again. On Monday in Toronto, they roared back from a 2-0 deficit to beat Maple Leafs 4-3. On Wednesday in Washington, they blew three two-goal leads and lost to the Capitals 5-4 in a shootout.

They haven’t recovered from that loss. On Friday in Philadelphia, the Flyers, one of the league’s worst teams, beat them 5-2.

The Bruins, who improved to a league-best 53-11-5, exploited the Sabres and goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen all afternoon before the capacity crowd of 19,070 fans at KeyBank Center. The Sabres looked frazzled, blowing their coverage and making ill-advised decisions.

“The details of pucks going through us, of us holding middle ice, you can look at that and say those are things that would happen more under stress than naturally,” Granato said. “We’re in a position that’s more stress, more urgency, and that is a damn good thing because that’s where we wanted to be. We want to be in that situation where you have a team like this or a group like this that is experiencing a lot of that stress for the first time and has to adjust to it.

“Not only stress within the game. It may be stress of the grind or stress of fatigue or stress of playing through some things that can inhibit you from playing to your full capacity.”

So how do the Sabres stop that pressure from consuming them?

“You have to identify with what you’re capable of and sometimes you miss that, you lose that,” Granato said. “We generated scoring chances that we typically score on. Were we too tight there is the question.”

Luukkonen, a rookie, endured the brunt of the Bruins’ attack for 60 minutes. Instead of pulling his goalie this season, Granato has often chosen to let him battle and finish the game.

“This adversity and challenge is something that we have to be able to learn to fight through,” Granato said. “So you do consider (pulling the goalie) all the time. But when you consider putting another guy in, they might have to play two days later also. So there’s lots of different things you’re weighing in that situation. …

“But if I’m thinking of Upie right now, this is the first time through it for him. And he’s a capable guy. We know he’s developed a lot in the last couple years. … He needs that battle with maybe doubting himself or the challenge of having to respond under greater pressure.”

Defenseman Riley Stillman said the Sabres “all feel” for Luukkonen, who made 18 saves.

“It has nothing to do with him,” he said. “It’s a team thing. We’re a group. Everyone looks in the mirror and wants to be better every night. … That’s not on him at all, that’s us. He’s hung in there, he battles and competes every day. He’s a great goaltender, and we have to do a better job in front of him.”

Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman made 26 saves to record his second straight shutout. Patrice Bergeron, Garnet Hathaway, Jake DeBrusk, Hampus Lindholm, David Pastrnak, Charlie Coyle and Charlie McAvoy all scored. DeBrusk had four points, while Bergeron registered three.

The Sabres made two lineup changes, inserting rookie winger JJ Peterka for Vinnie Hinostroza and defenseman Kale Clague for Jacob Bryson.

Peterka skated in his usual spot at left wing with Cozens and Jack Quinn. Clague, meanwhile, played mostly played with Rasmus Dahlin.

Granato also made center Tyson Jost, a regular all season, a healthy scratch for the second straight game. With Jost out, Casey Mittelstadt moved from the wing to center, his natural position, for the second straight game.

“We have to pull two guys out,” Granato said. “… Guys can’t be out too long.”

He added: “The good side of it is probably anybody you pluck out you can have an argument with.”

Meanwhile, winger Victor Olofsson, who scored two goals Friday, played again after being scratched twice last week.

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