By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The breaks usually even out during the course of a long, long National Hockey League season. Usually, though, they don’t change direction so quickly and so emphatically.
Ask the Buffalo Sabres.
Just a week ago, the Sabres were riding high after a dramatic win over the San Jose Sharks. It was their 10th straight victory, tying a franchise record, and seven of them had come in overtime or in shootouts. During that stretch the entire area seemed to rediscover that a winning hockey team could be fun to follow.
But to be fair, there was some luck involved. Overtime play and shootouts are almost like flipping a coin when it comes to determining a winner, and the Sabres had been on a roll of making the right call. It is difficult to sustain that sort of run indefinitely.
Since then, Lady Luck has turned her back on the Sabres. Buffalo dropped its fourth straight game on Tuesday, this time a 4-3 overtime decision to the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was the Sabres’ fourth straight loss by one goal – and their seventh straight game decided by one goal. If that’s not another team record, it ought to be.
The Sabres actually have been playing quite well in those four games, as the scores might indicate. They’ve been on the verge of beating top teams during a busy stretch of travel (Tampa to Florida to Nashville to Buffalo), but have come up just short.
“We played three of the top five teams in the league, including a back-to-back game,” Jack Eichel said. “We played a great game. I thought we battled, but they get the extra point.”
They got it because the Maple Leafs capitalized on some opportunities that came out of nowhere. Auston Matthews knocked down an airborne puck that was floating behind the Buffalo net, and came around the far side to score the game’s first goal on a wraparound. Then in the third period, a shot that missed the net came directly to Patrick Marleau – who was conveniently standing right on the doorstep.
“I kind of lost it both times,” goalie Linus Ullmark said about those two goals. “There was a lot of traffic out there. It is a game of inches.”
Then late in the overtime period, the teams appear to be headed for a shootout when Matthews led a two-on-two break into the Buffalo zone. The superb Toronto center found some shooting room and beat Ullmark for the winner with 2.9 seconds left.
“He makes that shot maybe 10 times a year,” said Evan Rodrigues, who deserves credit for hanging around the locker room to take questions after being on the ice for the deciding goal. “He does the same thing over and over again. He’s got that down to a T. It was a hell of a shot.”
Want some good news from a Sabres’ perspective? There was plenty, to the point where coach Phil Housley seemed relatively satisfied about everything about the game except for the final outcome.
“We were ready to play,” he said. “I give credit to our guys. With the schedule, the travel, and the play against a really good hockey game, it was good that we came back twice. It was a credit to the guys. It’s too bad they didn’t get rewarded for that because I thought they played terrific.”
A standout in the loss
Rasmus Ristolainen was one of those guys. That was clearly one of his best games of the season, and maybe one of the best in many seasons. He was a factor whenever he took to the ice.
“Yeah, he was one of our best players,” Eichel said. “We were down to five defensemen (with an injury to Casey Nelson), and he played in big situations.”
Meanwhile, Eichel found his goal-scoring touch with two goals in the third period that moved his team from a goal down to a goal up. Eichel has been doing everything but scoring lately, so maybe his luck has taken a bit of a turn. Sam Reinhart also continued to put points on the board, scoring on a deflection.
Such a breakdown of the contest is necessary, naturally, but it overlooks one key element of the night. This was a very anticipated game, and it lived up to all expectations in wildly entertaining fashion. With the large number of Maple Leafs’ fans in the building, any play by either side drew a reaction as no one in the building wanted to look away for a moment. The ending didn’t leave Buffalo’s boosters too happy at the end, but they did see their favorites play well for almost 65 minutes.
In other words, it was great fun. It was easy to give a quick thought to what a playoff series between these teams would look like in the spring.
“It’s always great playing these games,” Ullmark said. “It always has some extra spice to it.”
We’ll see how much seasoning the Sabres’ next game has. It will be against the Flyers on Saturday afternoon.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB).
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