BUFFALO – Call it a classic trap game. As the Sabres battle for their first playoff berth in 12 years, they have a loaded schedule in the coming days.
Contests against the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, superstar Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, and the New York Islanders, a team they’re chasing, are on the horizon.
First, however, the Sabres had Tuesday’s game against the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets who rank dead last in the 32-team NHL.
In December, the Sabres annihilated Columbus, scoring nine goals. Easy win, right? Well, not exactly.
The Sabres looked ugly and disjointed against a weak opponent, falling behind early and losing 5-3.
“We were not sharp,” coach Don Granato said after the Sabres’ three-game winning streak ended. “… We definitely feel we could have competed and worked harder.”
He added: “We chased this game.”
When the horn sounded to end the second period with the Sabres down 4-1, the crowd of 13,661 fans booed the Sabres off the ice.
“For really the first time in a long time we felt we couldn’t move the puck up smoothly from our D zone,” said Granato, whose Sabres were coming off Sunday afternoon’s 7-4 win over the Washington Capitals. “We couldn’t get a transition game. It was in guys’ feet (and) sloppy. It was a challenging game all the way through because we just couldn’t get any smooth transition.”
In the third period, two rookie wingers buoyed the Sabres, helping them roar back. Jack Quinn scored at 5:02, igniting the crowd. JJ Peterka followed on the power play at 9:46, ending a 26-game drought.
But Eric Robinson’s third goal of the night, an empty-netter, sealed Columbus’ victory.
“It’s real easy to play when you’ve got nothing to lose,” Sabres goalie Craig Anderson said of the third period. “At that point in the game, we’ve got nothing to lose, we have to push and try to get ourselves back in there, and I thought we did a good job. The unfortunate thing is that we dug ourselves into a pretty deep hole to try and get out of. It’s a learning curve for this young group.”
Captain Kyle Okposo said the Sabres “were playing pond hockey in the first period.”
“It’s not a good recipe for success this time of the year,” he said. “Third period we came out and we pushed.”
Still, it wasn’t enough, and the Sabres fell to 12-16-2 at home this season. They have the second-worst home record in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, they’re 19-8-2 on the road.
If they were even average at KeyBank Center, they’d be in a playoff spot. Instead, they trail the Pittsburgh Penguins by three points for the final wild card spot.
Granato said the Sabres often complicate things at home, making an extra pass and getting too fancy.
“There were some shots we passed up,” he said. “There was an opportunity in the second period we’re staring right at the goalie, we passed and hit a stick. And it just points to we want to make it perfect. We get on the road, you’re not worried about making it perfect. It’s a more direct mentality.”
Robinson, who entered the night with five goals in 53 games, registered his first NHL hat trick, scoring in each period. Boone Jenner scored with 18 seconds left in the second period. Kent Johnson’s power-play goal opened the scoring 2:53 into the game.
Eighteen seconds after Johnson scored, Sabres center Tage Thompson’s 41st goal tied the contest. It was also his 80th point.
Thompson has compiled six goals and 11 points during a career-long seven-game point streak. Winger Jeff Skinner’s assist on Thompson’s goal extended his point streak to seven games.
Granato believes Peterka’s first goal since Dec. 13 will give him a boost.
“He’s worked hard in other areas, been stronger on pucks and determined in different areas,” he said.
Anderson made 31 saves. Elvis Merzlikins, his counterpart, stopped 38 shots.