Devon Levi tries to stop a shot Thursday with Calgary’s Adam Ruzicka in front of him. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres keep rallying, fall short in sloppy loss to Flames: ‘Wanted an easier game’

BUFFALO – Scoring goals won’t be a problem for the Sabres this season, veteran defenseman Erik Johnson said. It’s preventing them that worries him.

“Until we have a commitment to team defense we won’t accomplish much,” Johnson said following Thursday’s 4-3 loss to the Calgary Flames.

To wit: with the game knotted at 2 late in the second period, the disjointed Sabres allowed a breakaway and an odd-man rush. They escaped the period tied, but in the third, Blake Coleman restored the Flames’ lead at 1:52, converting on a four-on-two break.

“We won’t win in the long run like that, and that takes a five-man commitment on the ice to do it right,” said Johnson, who scored the Sabres’ first goal. “Sometimes that comes with going through those lumps and sometimes in order to have success you’ve got to learn those mistakes

“But those are things we can clean up no problem, it’s just a mindset to committing to do that.”

Winger JJ Peterka tied the game again at 3:14, the third time the Sabres rallied from a one-goal deficit before the crowd of 13,025 at KeyBank Center. But Adam Ruzicka put the Flames up again at 4:35, his weak shot beating goalie Devon Levi from the left circle.

Coach Don Granato said the Sabres created their own “mess.”

“We were sloppy,” he said. “The difference in the game for me was Calgary did a nice job playing a very direct game, they got their bounces, they made their breaks. I felt we didn’t play direct enough.”

He added: “We wanted an easier game and we almost got away with it – almost. It’s not a good habit to get into.”

The extra play – Granato said the Sabres tried to pass the puck into the net – often hurt them as they fell to 1-3-0 one week into the season.

“To win in the long run, you have to commit to puck management, knowing what time’s on the clock,” Johnson said. “That comes with time, I think we’ll get there. It’s early in the season, it’s not the record we wanted, it’s not the record we thought we’d have, but you can’t dwell on it.”

He added: “Sometimes we try to overcomplicate it. We have a lot of skill in this room, that will take over when the opportunity is there. But I think as a group, we have to come recognize that that’s not always going to be the case. We have to commit to defense and when you do that, you will get offense and you will win.”

In the coming days – whether it’s Saturday or early next week – Levi will likely take a seat for the first time this season.

Levi has started all four games, often displaying why at just 21, the Sabres believe he possesses the maturity and talent to be a No. 1 NHL goalie.

But after Thursday’s loss, it might benefit him to take a breather and reset. He had a few big stops among his 32, most notably a glove save to stymie Elias Lindholm’s breakaway in the waning seconds of the second period.

Still, the rookie clearly fought the puck at times. He almost certainly wants Ruzicka’s goal back. Later in the third period, Mackenzie Weegar’s 134-foot shot from inside his own blue line nearly beat him.

The puck wasn’t ruled a goal on the ice and no video angles showed it completely over the line. Following a long review, it was ruled no goal.

When asked about Levi’s play, Granato spoke about the team’s performance in front of him. He said the Flames, unlike his team, were intent on putting pucks on net creating chaos. Two of their goals hit skates before they went.

Jonathan Huberdeau opened the scoring for the Flames 49 seconds into the contest. Johnson tied it later in the period, his first regular-season goal in 67 games dating back to April 26, 2022.

Walker Duehr put the Flames back up in the first before center Tage Thompson scored from the left circle, his first this season goal and the Sabres’ first power-play tally on their 11th try.

“Just keeping it simple,” Thompson said of the power play’s success. “I think when you don’t score in a while, you start to try to overcomplicate things. I think we did some video this morning and just tried to get back to basics. Just shoot, recover pucks, and I think that’s kind of the sequence that led to the goal there.”

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