By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
A popular postgame cliché in hockey circles centers on the need to play 60 good minutes in order to get a win.
The Sabres almost turned that one on its head on Thursday night at the KeyBank Center.
Buffalo turned in a rather dreary performance in the first two periods, perhaps its worst such effort of the year. But the Sabres picked it up a few notches and played a good third period to send the game to overtime, where they easily could have stolen an extra point in the standings. Alas, justice was served when it was New York that came up with the overtime goal for a 3-2 win. In other words, a 22-minute effort just wasn’t good enough to defeat the Rangers.
“We had two of our rougher periods in the season so far,” Buffalo coach Ralph Krueger said. “It was extremely disappointing. We knew they’d come with their A game, but we didn’t match their intensity. We played much better five-on-five in the third. But they deserved the win at the end of the day.”
In the beginning
While the scoreboard showed a similar pattern to Tuesday’s game in which Buffalo rallied twice to beat New York, this was a much different contest. The Rangers looked a bit flat for much of that contest, and they came out with some energy right from the start. They had a 2-1 lead after two periods on goals by Ryan Strome and Artemi Panarin, and the shots were a little more indicative of the type of play. The shot clock read 24-9 in favor of New York. Even the Buffalo power play, a strength through the young season, was a beat slow.
“I think it was similar to (our play on) five on five – not making the simple play, losing those races for the puck,” Sam Reinhart said. “It’s tough to find success when we’re clearly the slower team.”
When numbers like that come up, you have to assume a goaltender is doing something right. And you’d be right in this case. Linus Ullmark had some five-star specials in the Buffalo net to give his team a chance to win.
“(Ullmark) was the best player for us by far,” said Jack Eichel, who had Buffalo’s first goal. “We wouldn’t have gotten the point without him. It was good to see, but we can’t rely on him like that. We’ve got to get engaged in the game, starting in the first period. They were the more desperate team in the first and second (periods).”
Ullmark added, “Sometimes you have some luck with you. Today was one of those days, when you position yourself to make a save and it happens. My teammates were in good position tonight. As much as people give me credit for making stops, you have to credit the defense for stopping all those shots.”
At least the Sabres showed up for the third period. They finished with the stanza’s only goal (Reinhart, at the doorstep on the power play) and had 14 shots.
“Between periods, there’s nothing said that has to do with tactics or principles,” Krueger said. “It (the game) was testing our mettle. The spirit was good on the bench. It was good to see us in a game that was really bad, and then find our game and get back on track. I was encouraged by the reaction in the third. … It was a valuable point on a night when we’re really not happy with our game.”
And with all of that, the Sabres still came within a bounce of having a fabulous chance of winning in overtime. Rasmus Ristolainen broke into the Rangers’ zone on a two-on-one with Jack Eichel, and the defenseman just missed completing a pass that would have sent Eichel in alone on the right side.
“It looked like the puck was bouncing on him,” Eichel said. “He was having a hard time getting a handle on it. The ice is always a factor, but that’s true for both teams. It was close.”
The Rangers took their turn at winning in overtime a bit later, getting a two-on-one of their own. Not only did they capitalize on the play to score the winner, but they showed us a glimpse of Hockey Future in the process. Alexis Lafreniere, who was the first overall pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, got the first of what might turn out to be hundreds of goals in his career. Lafreniere wasn’t too noticeable in the two games here, but that could change soon.
The Sabres fell to 3-3-2 for the season, but have points in their last four games. This four-game stretch of home games against the Rangers and Devils (New Jersey is here Saturday and Sunday afternoon) represents a chance to pick up some points, and they’ve done that so far. But – a team with hopes of improving this season knows it has to play better than it did Thursday in order to climb in the standings when better opponents pop up on the schedule.
“We have to start to find ways to score five-on-five,” Eichel said. “I don’t know if we’re hungry enough, not executing enough. We can’t rely on the goaltender to make highlight reel saves. We have to be better.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)