BUFFALO – This is all new for the Sabres – the high expectations, the strong sense of urgency they must showcase throughout their most meaningful tilts in seven years.
On Friday, the Sabres could’ve won their third game in four tries, closed out two weeks at home on a high note and inched two points closer to the Eastern Conference’s second wild card spot.
Instead, they imploded again, falling behind two goals early and losing 6-2 to a weak New York Rangers club before a capacity crowd of 19,070 inside KeyBank Center.
While the Sabres crept within a goal twice thanks to two Jeff Skinner scores, his 35th and 36th this season, they looked downright awful defensively.
Fresh off three games (two wins) in which they clamped down defensively, the Sabres reverted to their old ways Friday, allowing the Rangers to zoom around their zone.
“We thought it was going to be easy, and New York worked, give them credit,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said. “They cycled the puck well. We didn’t pin a guy on a cycle. We didn’t kill a play. We just let them roam and now we’re just riding our checks and it just looks like we’re soft.”
Yes, Housley really called his team “soft.” He’s not wrong, either.
If you can’t simply pin an opponent or make someone pay a price to go to the front of the net, it’s an appropriate and disturbing label.
“It’s frustrating, because we’ve played some really good hockey, especially in this home stand at times,” Housley said of coaching a soft team. “When we made that adjustment we were tough, we boxed out in front.
“That’s the disappointing thing, because we get away from the details of our game and the strengths that gave us some success in the recent three games. … Time’s running out. We have to understand every detail matters.”
The clock is ticking on the 10th-place Sabres’ season. They’re still in decent shape, just four points out with 25 games remaining.
But they must start stringing together some wins. They’ve been wildly inconsistent for more than two months.
Incredibly, they haven’t won back-to-back games since Dec. 11 and 13.
“We definitely have to find (consistency) if we’re going to give ourselves a chance,” Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian said.
Clearly, getting the heck out of town will probably help the Sabres. They went 3-3-1 on their seven-game home stand, allowing a whopping 28 goals.
They start a three-game road trip Sunday in New Jersey.
“You got to bring it every night and you can’t have lapses for five minutes, 10 minutes, of games,” said Skinner, who was the only player in the dressing room when it opened. “I think that’s sort of been a theme and this time of year, you give a team a chance, five minutes to carry the play and then before you know it you’re in a bit of a hole.
“If you keep doing that to yourself, the odds aren’t good for you to dig yourself out of that every night.”
To make matters worse, Sabres winger Kyle Okposo, who has a scary history of concussions, left the game bleeding after fighting Tony DeAngelo in the third period.
After Okposo hit Mats Zuccarello from behind, Okposo answered DeAngelo’s challenge. The two squared off for about 10 seconds before DeAngelo dropped Okposo with one punch.
Housley had no update on Okposo, who has four fights in his 12-year career, according to hockeyfights.com.
“It was unfortunate,” Housley said. “I’m glad he stepped up.”
Cristoval Nieves, Jasper Fast, Jimmy Vesey, Pavel Buchnevich and Vladimir Namestikovc (two) – not exactly a bunch of household names – scored for the Rangers.
Sabres winger Sam Reinhart assisted on Skinner’s second goal, his 50th point, tying his career high.
Skinner is one goal short of his career-high goal total he set in 2016-17.
Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark made 23 saves.