BUFFALO – In one dressing room, the smiles told the story. After shellacking the reeling Sabres 5-1 on Tuesday, the upstart Florida Panthers confidently celebrated their franchise-record 10th consecutive victory.
“Ten, might as well just keep going and win every game,” said winger Jonathan Huberdeau, one of the Panthers’ young stars.
Yes, the Panthers, the NHL’s perennial laughingstock, have quickly morphed into the league’s hottest team.
Down the hallway inside the First Niagara Center, the Sabres, who seem to lose every game, looked dour. The 29th-ranked team has lost five straight games, its worst run this season. Players had few answers for their miserable performance.
The season has quickly slipped away from the Sabres, who appear headed for their third consecutive lottery pick.
“I don’t think we were focused on the start,” center Ryan O’Reilly quietly inside an empty Sabres dressing room. “ … I start with myself. Right from the get-go we have to establish our game right away. What are we doing? I’m embarrassed right now. This is not what we want. This is not how we want to play.”
Well, it might get even worse for the Sabres, who begin a three-game road trip Friday against Chicago Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions. They also play in Winnipeg, where they’ve never beaten the Jets since they returned four years ago, and against the Minnesota Wild.
The Sabres have a myriad of problems. The most glaring, of course, is their inability to score, especially early. They have only 91 goals in 40 games and an NHL-low 15 in the first period, meaning they often play from behind.
They’ve shown a strong ability to push back at times. But after O’Reilly’s second-period power-play goal tied the game, the Sabres wilted when the Panthers went ahead again.
The losses – the Sabres already have 25 this season – are starting to wear on the players.
“I don’t think our pushback was there in the third period where it needed to be,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “They got the third goal, and I thought we really sagged after that.”
How do the Sabres get out of this?
“I don’t know,” O’Reilly said. “It’s frustrating, but we have to find a way. It’s got to start with work ethic and preparation and focus. You got to start somewhere and invent ourselves.”
Bylsma believes “a lot of it is mental and being prepared and ready to play the appropriate way.”
“That’s my job as a coach to get them ready to play in those situations, ready to play that game,” he said, “and I don’t think we were tonight.”
Goaltending, one of the Sabres’ strengths at times this season, couldn’t bail them out. Rookie Linus Ullmark’s 22-save performance – the Panthers also scored an empty-netter – clearly didn’t impress Bylsma.
“He gave up four goals, it’s never going to be a good assessment of the game,” he said.
Ullmark looked like a future No. 1 netminder earlier this season. But his game has been slipping for weeks. A lack of goal supporting has also been hurting the Swede. The Sabres have scored only two goals for him during his four-game losing streak. He’s 1-8-2 in his last 11 starts.
“I just got to keep on focusing on my game,” Ullmark said.
Jaromir Jagr scored in the first period before O’Reilly tied it. Then goals from Derek MacKenzie, Corban Knight and Huberdeau sealed it. By the time Brandon Pirri’s empty-netter sealed it, most of the 18,560 fans had left.