Alex Tuch knows Buffalo’s power play must improve. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

Special teams doom Sabres in loss to Bruins: ‘Achilles’ heel for us tonight’

BUFFALO – Chew on these ghastly, NHL-worst numbers: the Sabres have allowed a whopping 48 first-period goals and possess a minus-22 goal differential in the opening 20 minutes this season.

In Wednesday’s 4-1 loss to the Boston Bruins, the Sabres trailed by the 4:19 mark and fell behind 2-0 at 13:42 before the capacity crowd of 19,070 fans in KeyBank Center.

When the Sabres had a four-minute man advantage after going down 1-0, they frittered it away, and Charlie Coyle scored the first of his two power-play goals shortly after the penalties expired.

Special teams cost the Sabres early and often in their first outing following a three-day Christmas break.

The Bruins converted three of their four power-play attempts. The Sabres, meanwhile, went scoreless in their six chances.

“Special teams, we gave up three goals on the penalty kill, didn’t convert on the power play, even five on five,” said defenseman Erik Johnson, who scored the Sabres’ only goal. “Bottom line, special teams, Achilles’ heel for us tonight.”

Prior to their break, the Sabres had found a bit of a groove, at least by their standards. They throttled the Toronto Maple Leafs 9-3 last Thursday before losing to the New York Rangers 4-3 in overtime Saturday.

Incredibly, it marked just the fourth time this season they’ve earned at least one point in consecutive games.

But they lost their momentum during the holidays. The Bruins, a team they defeated 3-1 on Dec. 7 in Boston, limped into town on a 0-2-2 run, their first four-game winless streak since December 2019.

Thirty-six games into the what is fast becoming another lost season, the Sabres must surpass five teams and make up seven points to move into the Eastern Conference’s second wild card spot.

“I know it’s after the break,” Sabres winger Alex Tuch said. “You know what? The rust is off now. There’s no more excuses going down. I don’t know how many games until bye week. We’re going to want to be well above .500 over the next 15 games or so. It’s a good stretch here coming in.

“We got a lot of home games coming up, especially in January. I think it’s going to be huge for us to try to make this a lot harder place to play in. It’s a little too easy right now, and we have to take it upon ourselves to be better.”

The Sabres, who played without top center Tage Thompson because of personal reasons, must be better in a lot of areas. They’re 7-10-3 at home. While their penalty killing has mostly been decent, their power play ranks 26th in the league and has converted just four of its last 44 chances over the last 15 games.

Overall this season, it has scored just 14 goals in 105 attempts, 13.3 percent, and allowed six short-handed goals.

Last season, the Sabres’ power play, which has most of the same personnel this year, scored at a 23.4 percent clip and ranked ninth.

“We’re overthinking everything,” Tuch said. “We’re double-touching pucks. I’m double-touching on the goal line, putting them out of guys’ reach, shooting when we shouldn’t, we’re not shooting when we should. We’re passing up good opportunities, we’re not supporting each other. It just kind of adds up. It’s a snowball effect. …

“We had one of the best power plays in the league last year and … it’s confidence, it’s swagger. We obviously don’t have it right now, and we’re going to work to get it back.”

Sabres coach Don Granato, who said he has become more involved in the power play, said “there needs to be personnel changes” and different looks.

“(We need) more of a shot mentality, more of an attack mentality, more of a direct to the net mentality,” he said.

Mason Lohrei scored Boston’s first goal. Coyle and Morgan Geekie scored power-play goals in the second to put the game out of reach.

Sabres goalie Devon Levi, who turned 22 on Wednesday, made 21 saves.

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