By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Wash, rinse, repeat.
If you missed Tuesday night’s game between the Buffalo Sabres and the New York Islanders but saw Monday’s game between the same two teams, don’t worry about it. You didn’t miss a thing.
It was practically the same game. The outcome was same. The goal-scorers had familiar names. The style of play was essentially an instant replay of what happened 24 hours earlier. Even many of the postgame quotes from the Sabres’ side could have been used on Monday.
All that was needed was to show “Groundhog Day” on the Jumbotron between periods.
For the record, the Islanders defeated the Sabres, 3-0, in the KeyBank Center. That’s three straight losses for Buffalo, their longest such skid of the young season. The record dropped to 4-6-2. If you’d like some other bad news as long as we are spitting out numbers, the Sabres have two wins in regulation time this season.
“We can’t find the offensive part,” forward Taylor Hall said. “Defensively, we’ve been strong enough to be in games. But we have one goal in the last 120 minutes. That’s it right there.”
Another slow start
The Islanders were so pleased by the way they opened Monday’s game that they used the same formula on Tuesday. They had a 2-0 lead in both cases, and Anders Lee and Jean-Gabriel Pageau again had the goals. The last thing the Sabres wanted to do was fall behind right from the start for the second straight night. Instead, they were down by a pair 12 minutes into the game rather than Monday’s 19 minutes.
“First chance, they come down and make a rink-wide pass with unbelievable execution to score the goal,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “I thought we put that away pretty well. Our mindset was better and we stuck with our game. But going down 2-0 was a huge mountain to climb.”
The second period went by without incident, much to the Islanders’ delight. The Sabres only had three shots on goal – an improvement over Monday’s zero shots in third period, but that’s nothing to brag about. It played right into New York’s hands.
Finally, the Sabres started to break down the Islanders’ defensive structure into the third period. Rookie goaltender Ilya Sorokin, who came into the game 0-2-1 with a 3.65 goals-against average and a .871 save percentage, did not wilt under some sustained pressure. Victor Olofsson had one glorious chance from fairly close range, but it looked as if he shot the puck into Sorokin’s glove.
Just to make the comparisons to Monday a little more spooky, Olofsson appeared to get the Sabres back in the game with a power-play goal with seven minutes left in regulation – cutting the lead to 2-1 as he did the night before. But the Islanders challenged the play for an offside review, and Jack Eichel was found to be a few inches ahead of the puck entering the blue line. No goal. That was that, and Sorokin no doubt has a souvenir puck in his possession from his first NHL win – a shutout, no less.
The not-so-big guns
Olofsson is one of the few forwards who hasn’t been missing in action lately. He has five goals to lead the team. But the big guns like Eichel (two goals), Hall (one goal) and Jeff Skinner haven’t been doing much offensively all season in terms of putting the puck in the net (Eichel and Hall at least have some assists). As the cliché goes, the Sabres’ best players have to be their best players on most nights to give them a chance to win.
“It’s been a struggle for me personally,” Hall said. “I’d love to have four or five goals right now. I have had some bad luck, but when you aren’t scoring you have to change something. It’s been tough. I can’t lie. If I have four or five goals right now, you don’t know what the season looks like. It’s tough. I personally have to keep chugging along and try to produce offense.”
Admittedly, these two games with the Islanders figured to be tough assignments. New York has rebounded from a slow start and is playing well. Buffalo is still getting players back from the Covid-19 list – even the coach looks like he lost a little weight during the layoff – and no one on the ice probably is quite in top game shape yet. The Sabres will be playing catch-up in terms of conditioning for a little while longer before their full lineup is operating at midseason efficiency.
Even so, everyone – players, coaches, and fans – are growing frustrated. With four straight road games coming up, the Sabres will need to stop the bleeding relatively soon. And it won’t be easy.
“There’s no question that we are in a league where results matter and results count,” Krueger said. “Speaking about process here or speaking about the good things that happened in this game – it just seems like energy spent for all of us. We want to know why we didn’t score, why results aren’t happening after a lot of effort and a lot of work. A lot of energy was invested in this game, and you come out completely empty. It’s a bitter pill to swallow.
“It’s truly painful to experience a game like this where so much of what was asked was carried out. Two games in a row, we gave up very little. But the lack of success up front is what you are speaking about. … It will be a focus. Nobody will feel sorry for us in this situation. We need to show our character right now. We have to step up and deal with this pain in a constructive way. We need to react very quickly.”
The Sabres’ first chance to do that will be Thursday night in Washington.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)