Buffalo goalie Devon Levi watches the puck as teammate Erik Johnson (6) battles the Rangers’ Chris Kreider. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres fall in early hole, lose opener; Zach Benson sharp in NHL debut

BUFFALO – A 2-0 deficit early in the first period. Just nine shots on goal more than halfway through the game.

At times, Thursday’s highly anticipated season opener felt like a throwback to the Sabres’ dreary days of the not-so-distant past.

They got going a bit as the game progressed, scoring late in the second period and making things interesting against the New York Rangers. Still, it was too little, too late, and they fell 5-1 before a noisy capacity crowd of 19,070 fans in KeyBank Center.

The Sabres, of course, are expected to end their NHL-record 12-year playoff drought this season after falling one win shy of the postseason in 2022-23.

“You get scored on twice in the first I think maybe three chances against, it’s tough sledding, especially in this scenario where you’re not in a rhythm, you haven’t played games in the regular season yet,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “We fought hard the rest of the game to try to dig out of that.”

The Rangers pounced on the Sabres during a physical first period – in the later stages, Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin’s hip check flipped Filip Chytil over – and seized control. Alexis Lafreniere scored 3:47 into the contest. Chris Kreider scored a power-play goal at 12:22.

Meanwhile, the Sabres couldn’t generate much offense against the Rangers’ 1-3-1 defensive system. When Artemi Panarin made it 3-0 12:49 into the second period, the Sabres had mustered just nine shots on goalie Igor Shesterkin.

“We obviously have struggled against the 1-3-1 in the past and we got to figure out how to play a simpler game when we play it because we just overcomplicated it tonight,” Sabres captain Kyle Okposo said.

Granato said the Sabres’ biggest challenge was simply shooting the puck. When winger JJ Peterka scored their only goal 18:30 into the second period, he quickly released the puck after the Rangers blocked defenseman Owen Power’s shot.

“It was a shot, it was blocked, but it pulled them out of structure,” Granato said. “… We did not have the ability or execute on tactically the right ways to pull teams out of structure and get a random and speed game going, and that has to do with unwillingness to shoot a shot initially.

“So, again, if you look at the goal, it was a shot. And any chances we had, there was a shot prior and it creates a random situation we can jump on.”

The Sabres pushed after Peterka’s goal made it 3-1, but the Rangers blocked shot 13 shots in the third period and 23 overall. Kreider’s short-handed goal and Rangers captain Jacob Trouba’s empty-net score sealed the win. Trouba had a game-high eight blocked shots.

Sabres goalie Devon Levi made 26 saves in his eighth NHL start. Sabres rookie Zach Benson, 18, skated 14 minutes, 27 seconds in his NHL debut, mostly on the right wing with center Casey Mittelstadt and Jordan Greenway.

Benson pumped two of the Sabres’ 25 shots on goal and also drew the ire of Mika Zibanejad after he hit Shesterkin’s glove.

“After the first three shifts, I think, settled in, but I think we played a good game overall,” Benson said. “Just a couple bounces the other way and it ended up in our net.”

The Sabres, of course, gave Benson the customary first game solo lap prior to the pregame warm-up.

“It felt really weird, it really did,” he said. “The last time I did a rookie lap was the Western League and there was no fans in the building, so it was definitely a little different tonight.”

The Sabres honored legendary play-by-ply man Rick Jeanneret prior to the game, giving him a stirring video tribute and before his family participated in a ceremonial faceoff.

Jeanneret, who called games for 51 years before retiring in 2022, died Aug. 17 at 81.

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