By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
A little over a week ago, there was hope.
It had been a long slog and the odds looked almost overwhelming, but nothing was written in indelible ink yet. Perhaps a final barnstorming session could change the picture and make it a dramatic spring. Alas, everything went wrong over the course of seven days and the mathematics changed enough to make the quest virtually impossible.
But enough about the Michael Bloomberg Presidential campaign. We’re here to talk about the Buffalo Sabres.
The hockey team limped home after losing primaries, er, games in Colorado, Vegas, Arizona and Winnipeg in the past several days. That stretch put them 12 points back from a playoff spot, and they didn’t help themselves in their return to the KeyBank Center ice. Buffalo dropped a 4-2 decision to the Penguins before 18,236.
It all seems almost unfair to the new kids on the ice. Wayne Simmonds and Dominik Kahun were acquired by the Sabres at the trade deadline just before the road trip to add a little spark to the roster in the hopes of making the rest of the season at least interesting. Thursday was their first game on home ice, and it started a run of something we’ve seen too often lately – meaningless March hockey at home.
This felt like a game between a Pittsburgh team that needed to win as it battles for a better playoff spot, and a Buffalo squad that would have preferred not to lose its fifth straight game in regulation for the first time this season. The better team won, although the route was not exactly the most direct path.
Scramble at the net
The tone was set with the game’s first goal. Goalie Jonas Johansson got bumped by a Pittsburgh player, leaving him helpless to stop a tap-in by the Penguins’ Patric Hornqvist. The officials looked at it, called it a goal, the Sabres challenged the call, and it again was called a goal.
“We reviewed it six times,” Buffalo coach Ralph Krueger said. “They look at it in real time. We thought it was quite clearly goaltender interference.”
The lost challenge carried an automatic two-minute penalty. That led to another goal, but this one by Sabre defenseman Jake McCabe. As an added twist of madness, the defenseman tallied on a short-handed breakaway from the red line. McCabe couldn’t remember his last such play, but he looked pretty good in the process. But the game stayed tied for less than four minutes when Pittsburgh’s Marcus Pettersson scored from near the blue line.
The second period probably represented the turning point of the game. Buffalo did a great many things right, not allowing the Penguins to even enter the offensive zone most of the time. But they couldn’t solve Matt Murray in the Pittsburgh goal, and Hornqvist struck again to make it 3-1 with 13:37 gone in the period. It wa the Penguins’ first shot of the middle stanza.
“It certainly was the missed opportunities that led to the result,” Krueger said about the second period. “It was one of our better periods of the season, actually. Everything worked. But we need to stay that way into the third.”
Buffalo got one of the goals back early in the third period when Marcus Johansson took a nifty pass from Kahun and scored from high in the slot. But soon life returned to normal, as Sidney Crosby made the sort of play you’d expect from a future Hall of Famer.
The Sabres had just missed on a good scoring chance when Pittsburgh went the other way in a hurry. Crosby turned it into a two-on-one break. He took a backhander from the right side that was hard and accurate, somehow finding the net. Goalie Jonas Johansson doesn’t see that sort of play when he’s in the American Hockey League. Welcome to the big leagues, Jonas.
“That was a really good backhand shot,” Johansson said. “I was trying to be patient – see if there was a pass or if he’d shoot it. He beat me clean. I have to give it to him. That was a really good shot. Now I’ll know about it next time.”
The Sabres fell to 29-30-8 for 66 points for the season. Just for comparison’s sake, Buffalo was 30-28-8 for 68 points exactly one year ago. OK, that 2018-19 team finished that season with a 3-11-2 thud, so it’s going to be difficult not to improve on that record this time.
Still, the team can’t score enough to beat many teams right now. Buffalo hasn’t topped two goals in its last six starts. The big line of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson hasn’t scored in this losing streak.
“We’ve got to get dirty ones, greasy ones,” McCabe said. “It has to go off skates, shin pads, rear ends – you’ve got to get pucks in traffic to the net and try to get one to bounce in if it’s not going to come the pretty way.”
And the schedule-maker didn’t do Buffalo any favors, with games coming up against Philadelphia, Washington, Montreal, Boston, Carolina (twice) and Florida. Like Bloomberg, the Sabres have dropped out of the 2020 race. But at least they have shown an ability not to bottom out during tough times this season. The next month certainly will test that characteristic.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)