By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Ever see a baseball game between two non-contenders in September?
That’s when the teams obviously have nothing to gain in the standings with a victory. It’s a time for personal growth and roster experimentation, but such games are also known to be a bit sloppy.
That sort of sounds like Thursday’s game in the KeyBank Center. The Devils managed to outscore the Sabres, 6-3, in a game that at least had plenty of scoring although it won’t be placed in the nearest art museum any time soon.
“I don’t think we were very good tonight,” Kyle Okposo of the Sabres said. “It was the first game in the last bit, last six, that we got away from what we try to do to have our identity. We didn’t execute. Everyone knows that wasn’t our best.”
Both the Sabres and New Jersey resembled baseball teams that have dealt some future free agents to contenders in an effort to get better. The Devils packed up Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac on Wednesday to the Islanders for two minor leaguers and two draft choices, including a first-rounder. The Sabres dealt Eric Staal to the Canadiens earlier in the season, and Taylor Hall is sitting on the sidelines until they can find a taker who will pay an appropriate price for him before Monday’s trading deadline. Throw in the usual injuries, and neither team was at “full strength.”
Therefore, we had to take this one on its own merits. It was something of a strange game, in which the three periods seemed to have distinct personalities.
Hot, then not
Buffalo couldn’t have asked for a better start, scoring at 53 seconds. Victor Olofsson was left alone in front and converted a Henri Jokiharju pass. Coach Don Granato praised Jokiharju for the pass and for the way he’s picked up his level of play recently.
“He’s playing with more confidence,” he said. “We’re seeing more skill. The first goal was beautiful to see.”
But the Sabres followed that goal with two quick penalties, and Pavel Zacha, the Devils’ leading scorer, put the puck in the net on both power plays. That put some wind under New Jersey’s wings, and they seemed to be skating in open ice for the rest of the period. Jack Hughes made it 3-1 along the way.
“What hurt us a little bit was coming out in the first (so poorly),” Tage Thompson said. “We were a little slow; they were beating us to pucks and winning the battles. We got behind the eight-ball.”
Buffalo figured out a way to slow the Devils’ down in the second period. There were times when neither team could convert two passes in a row, but the Sabres benefitted from the way the game changed. Along the way, Thompson scored a power-play goal and Skinner put home a rebound. It was 3-3 with 20 minutes to go, and it seemed like Buffalo had the momentum. After all, goalie Aaron Dell looked a little shaky after giving up second shots in that period.
But instead, the Sabres’ offense took the rest of the evening off. Two shots on goal (one in the final minutes with the goalie pulled) aren’t going to get it done, especially at home. Jesper Boqvist got the game-winner with 11:15 to play, followed by scores by Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen.
“I think it was a combination of a few things,” Skinner said about the offensive drought when it mattered most. “Poor execution was the number one thing. Maybe we passed up some shots. Those are two stock answers when something like that happens. You have to find a way to fight through them and maybe get an ugly one by throwing something at the net.”
Too much rest?
Granato seemed a bit downhearted after the game, probably for good reason. He immediately questioned one of his own decisions, which was to have optional practices on Wednesday and Thursday morning. With this sort of schedule, it’s always tough to balance rest versus work, and rest apparently didn’t work.
“We didn’t play well enough,” he said. “We didn’t play well from the start, and didn’t play well in the game. You look and you think, what could have you done differently? You are gauging the rest and work ratio, and we didn’t respond the way we wanted to. No question on that.”
Would it have made a difference? We’ll never know, and it’s too late to change it.
So ended the Sabres’ modest two-game winning streak and five-game point streak, which had tied season highs. It was Buffalo’s last game of the season of the Devils, and you can draw a line in the same – or at least on the ice – about what looms ahead. The Sabres host Washington on Friday night. Then they play, in order, the Flyers, Bruins, Capitals, Penguins, Penguins, Bruins, Bruins and Bruins. That’s eight games out of nine against teams currently in playoff spots, and the ninth – Philadelphia – certainly hasn’t given up on catching one of the contenders.
It’s not easy playing spoiler down the stretch, but it’s all the Sabres have.
“It’s a challenge we have to get excited about,” Granato said. “What’s relevant is to look forward to the challenge. These teams are Stanley Cup contenders. You have five or six teams that it wouldn’t be a surprise if they won Stanley Cup. You are locked in (to the schedule). You can’t run to play someone else in another division. This will make us better if we embrace the challenge.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)