By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Saturday’s game by the Buffalo Sabres was supposed to put the spotlight on Carter Hutton. The news had come out that No. 1 netminder Linus Ullmark would miss at least a month with the proverbial lower-body injury. For a team that gone 2-5-1 in its last eight games, this was quite bad news entering a game against the quite good Philadelphia Flyers.
Hutton, the backup goalie who will carry the load for the time being, was about the only bright spot for the Sabres on Saturday afternoon at the KeyBank Center. He had 36 saves as he – at least in theory – gave Buffalo a chance to win. The problem was that virtually no one else joining him in stepping up in a difficult situation. The Flyers went on to a 3-0 victory that looked downright easy from a distance.
“You could see that right through the (game) that they had a higher level of energy,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “We weren’t able to defend the way we’re capable of doing, closing gaps that we would do normally. The eight games in 13 days coming out of the Covid (break) – it’s something we knew was coming at us. It’s a mental fight to continue to keep consistent with our game.”
That lack of energy was mostly noticed when watching the offensive end of the game. There were only a handful of opportunities along the way. Flyers’ goalie Brian Elliott improved to 15-2-2 lifetime against the Sabres with a 23-save shutout. Then again, such performances are easier when the other team has trouble completing two passes in a row.
“I don’t think the confidence is very high right now,” Eric Staal said. “We had some Grade-A opportunities to score, and we didn’t score. When you feel pressure to score and be difference-makers, and it doesn’t happen, it’s difficult. We had some chances to get good feelings, and we didn’t capitalize. It got sloppier and sloppier.”
Buffalo’s biggest guns, of course, were silent on a mild Saturday afternoon. Jack Eichel’s absence for the second straight game was a part of it. However, Taylor Hall remained stuck on one goal for the season, while Jeff Skinner – back in the lineup after three games as a healthy scratch – still hasn’t scored this season. The forward had no shots in 12:34 of ice time.
The Sabres have scored a total of 17 goals in their last nine games, certainly contributing to that 2-6-1 record in that span. You may have heard that it’s tough to win hockey games when scoring less than two goals a game.
“I don’t think anyone is satisfied with that stat,” Skinner said about the recent skid. “We’re trying to rectify that as quickly as possible. It’s been a tough stretch. We have a lot of hockey left, but not a lot of time to fix things.”
The Flyers weren’t anything close to the Soviet National team of the 1970s when it came to puck movement either. But they were persistent and patient. A turnover led to a goal by Sean Couturier late in the first period. Then after the midway mark of the second period, the Buffalo defense seemed to run out of steam.
Shayne Gostibehere made it a two-goal lead at 14:33 of the second period, and Scott Laughton followed four minutes later after some nifty long passes sent him in alone on Hutton. The Buffalo goalie made some good stops in that period, but it sure felt as the Sabres were in a deep hole without a ladder in sight.
“It had a lot to do with puck management,” Krueger said. “We were close to exiting (the zone and couldn’t), or the players were exiting too early. We knew they’d come at us hard. … It was frustrating to mismanage the puck like that. I don’t think the defensive effort was the problem. Most of those Grade-A scoring chances came off the rush. We were trying to get a goal that we desperately needed, and it wound up going the other way.”
Running out the clock
Another intermission failed to revive the Sabres, and the Flyers were more or less to content to keep the game clean and protect Elliott in goal. There was never a moment where the outcome was in doubt by that point.
“They were better in every zone. I feel like we gave them way too many scoring chances,” said Rasmus Ristolainen, back in the lineup after a bout with Covid-19.
The Sabres have now caught up with most of the other teams in their division in terms of games played. The last-place squad was eight points back of the fourth-place Islanders, the team holding the last playoff spot in the division, as of Saturday afternoon. That’s starting to look like a very big hill.
Team members who spoke to the media after the game on Saturday that they can’t afford to worry about the long-term situation. They have to play the Flyers again on Sunday afternoon, and they need to figure out how to do it much better.
“It’s overwhelming when you look at the big picture,” Hutton said “I try to look at things day to day. … The older guys help the young guys look at the small picture. You need tunnel-vision.”
Krueger added, “Picture small – real small. Everything else is too destructive. We knew we were up for a battle coming out of the Covid break, adding (returning) players one at a time. It was up to us to have a better entry into this phase. It is bite and fight time. On the big picture, we have no time for that conversation. Monday, maybe we can do a little regroup. Not it’s all about getting ready for Philadelphia.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)