Casey Mittelstadt ended a 17-game goal drought Saturday afternoon. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres start fast before Flames roar back: ‘Punched us in the face’

BUFFALO – Following a 10-day break, the Sabres showcased some early jump Saturday afternoon, grabbing a 2-0 lead against the Calgary Flames.

But scoring on two of their first three shots masked signs of trouble. The Flames, who had played twice earlier in the week, outshot them 11-3 in the first period. Coach Don Granato said the Sabres overpassed, looked for the pretty play and complicated simple things.

By about the 15-minute mark, after goals from center Tage Thompson and winger Casey Mittelstadt, they began dusting the Sabres. Then they roared out of the gate in the second period, scoring four times in a span of 5:22.

“They came out and just punched us in the face,” captain Kyle Okposo said following the Sabres’ ugly 7-2 loss at KeyBank Center. “They just played better than us. I didn’t think we played great in the first, just a little bit rusty, but maybe a bit of a false sense of security being up two goals after the first period. …

“We just got pounded in the second period.”

The Sabres have played 156 periods this season. Saturday’s second was their worst. The Flames throttled them, outscoring them 4-0 and outshooting them 23-6.

Mikael Backlund and Jakob Pelletier scored 20 seconds apart, tying the game by the 2:37 mark. Then Williamsville native Dennis Gilbert scored at 4:04 before Nazem Kadri followed at 7:39.

“We never found a rhythm even though we had some good energy in the first and then we died,” Granato said. “The game looked to me like it was pretty simple: a team that’s already playing their third game coming back and a team that just had 10 days and didn’t play. We were one step off and I think it started cognitively and then manifested physically.”

The Sabres looked disjointed throughout the period, hanging goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen out to dry.

“We just skated in the first, and in the second I think we turned it off a little bit,” said Mittelstadt whose goal at 12:34 ended a 17-game drought. “I think it’s as simple as that. … I feel bad for Ukko. I thought he made some big saves for us at some times and we just kind of kept giving up chances.”

Granato said: “We are a different team when we’re fresh. We played a team that was much fresher tonight. You have to compensate other ways when you don’t feel fresh. Younger teams need to gain experience on how to do that.”

The Sabres, who have lost three straight games (0-2-1), have been outscored 12-3 in their last two outings. Saturday was their first five-goal loss this season. They also gave up four goals in one period Nov. 10 in a 7-4 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights.

“You don’t want to overreact to this one,” Okposo said. “It’s our first game in a while and obviously disappointing to come out like that with all the talk has been the last little bit. For sure disappointing, but let’s not hit the panic button right now. I don’t think anybody in here is going to tell you they played a good game. Once we kind of settle in here, get back into a groove, I think we reevaluate.”

The good news? The Sabres left immediately after the loss for Los Angeles, where they begin a three-game road trip Monday against the Kings.

The Sabres have a wretched 11-14-2 home record this season and a terrific 15-7-2 road mark. They’re 10-1-2 on the road against Western Conference opponents.

Notes: Thompson’s goal, a power-play score at 7:56, was his 69th point, a new career high. … Okposo on the crowd of 18,356 fans: “They were just waiting to get into the game and have something positive happen and we just weren’t able to provide it.” …Gilbert, a 26-year-old defenseman, said he had about 100 family members and friends watching. He added an assist for his first two-point NHL outing. The Flames recently recalled him from their AHL affiliate, the Calgary Wranglers. … Tyler Toffoli scored two third-period goals before Dillion Dube ended the barrage. … The Sabres scratched goalie Craig Anderson, forward Rasmus Asplund and defenseman Kale Clague (all healthy).

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