By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
At times on Thursday night, it looked as if the Buffalo Sabres had gone months and months without playing a game of any kind.
Oh, right. They hadn’t.
Ten months and five days after their last game, the Sabres dropped a 6-4 decision to the Washington Capitals in the KeyBank Center on Thursday night. While the layoff itself was tough enough, the fact that the teams only had a couple of practice weeks and did not have any exhibition games this month certainly was apparent. It didn’t figure to be a defensive struggle, and it wasn’t.
Buffalo never led in this game. T.J. Oshie put the Capitals ahead for good, 2-1, in the middle of the first period. For the next 35 minutes, Washington had a majority of the good chances as it built a 4-1 margin The Sabres made it interesting by getting the lead down to 5-4 after Victor Olofsson’s score with the goalie pulled with about two minutes left. But Garnet Hathaway ended any fabulous finish hopes with an empty-netter from long distance.
“We had a very disappointing start,” Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said. “They came with a lot of speed. We had trouble adapting. They did a good job of getting on us. It took a period and a bit to see our legs coming. We were too complicated through the neutral zone through the third period. Too little, too late at the end.”
It’s really not fair to try and evaluate what happened to the game. We’re all anxious for clues about the upcoming season, and everything might look differently in about two weeks. Still, that doesn’t mean everyone doesn’t pay attention. After all, the games do count.
Hall lights lamp
If you are looking for omens, Taylor Hall scored in his first game as a member of the Sabres. He joins an interesting club. Many players from Gil Perreault through Danny Gare and Alexander Mogilny to Pat LaFontaine and Rob Ray are in that grouping. Hall picked up a power-play score from the slot after some good puck movement. Overall, though, his line with Jack Eichel and Tage Thompson wasn’t particularly effective on offense.
“That’s an area we talk about – on the blue line, managing the puck,” Hall said. “Any team is going to make you pay for that. Our puck management wasn’t doing us any favors.”
Everyone was anxious to see new acquisition Eric Staal suit up for the Sabres, and his night was more forgettable – particularly to him. He had a costly giveaway that led to a big Washington goal early in the third period.
Then Staal took a shot to the head from the Capitals’ Nic Dowd. It came in the middle of the third period, and Staal was excused for the rest of the evening.
“It’s definitely day-to-day,” Krueger said. “We’ll see how he is in the morning. Quite surprised that a hit to the head gets (only a penalty of) two minutes.”
Defenseman Jake McCabe (who had a goal) added, “I didn’t see the hit. I saw Eric do a helicopter, which is a sign of a hit to the head. It’s tough to see that in the first game. I hope he’s all right.”
If Staal needs some recovery time, one plan might be to move rookie Dylan Cozens from wing to center for Friday’s rematch. It’s a little tough since Cozens made his NHL debut in the opener, but it’s not like he hasn’t been a center before. In the meantime, he thought he acquitted himself reasonably well in his first game in The Show.
“The excitement of your first game is something you dream about. Once I got my first shift out of the way, I settled down,” Cozens said. “Once I got my first shift out of the way, I settled down.
“I put in a lot of work in the offseason, gained weight, so I could battle. I think I did pretty well. Obviously the guys here are bigger and stronger, but I think I held my own.”
Meanwhile, it wasn’t a good night to try to judge defense and goaltending, the two areas that represented the biggest concerns entering the season. Six goals allowed won’t get it done, naturally, but everyone could take some responsibility for that.
“We expected rust, and there was rust,” Krueger said. “The compete level, the way it evolved, there was some breakdowns on their part. It wasn’t just us. We had six or seven pretty good chances. It might be that way for the next few games. We need to be more compact defensively. We were a little bit soft defensively as a group. We fell back, and we need to get back on our toes.”
From here, we immediately get to see a wrinkle of the new schedule – another home game with the Capitals. That will mean Buffalo will have played three straight home regular-season home games against the same team, which has to be a record. (The Sabres ended their season in March by hosting Washington.)
Krueger puts it this way: “We get to try to take these points back tomorrow.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)
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