By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Every so often, it’s good to look at the NHL standings – even if there is nothing at stake in the playoff race for your favorite team.
The recent good play of the Buffalo Sabres had them at 31 points through 45 games entering Tuesday night’s game with Boston. That’s not too good, naturally. But the team’s recent flurry of points has meant that last place – and its accompanying improved chance in the lottery at the first overall draft pick – is hardly guaranteed. That’s in spite of losing 18 games in a row in a shortened season, which is quite a trick when you think about it.
The Devils are lurking in the background. New Jersey went into Tuesday night’s game having lost six in a row – and they didn’t give up fewer than three goals in any one of them. Indeed, the Devils had allowed a total of 29 goals in that span. Meanwhile, Anaheim had 35 points entering Tuesday’s game out Eest, while Ottawa was at 36 and Vancouver (with a ton of postponed games to play because of a Covid-19 break) was at 37.
What’s the use of having a really poor year if you aren’t going to get a nice reward for it? OK, Connor McDavid’s little brother supposedly isn’t waiting at the end of the road this year, since there supposedly are no “generational players” available for the draft. In other words, no “tank” is necessary this time. But some fans around these parts have gotten used to the idea that some late-season losses usually aren’t soul crushing as long as no one is running for the bus and the best possible player in the draft may be the prize.
So those members of Sabre Nation probably weren’t too despondent on Tuesday night that the Bruins came to town and restored a little order. As for the rest of the population, they certainly noticed the way that Boston earned a 2-0 win in a game that didn’t feature much drama – just the way the Bruins like it.
“We chased the game,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “(Tuukka Rask) was good when he had to be. We didn’t set the pace. They set the pace. We exerted a lot of energy. This was like the first Pittsburgh game (on Saturday). There were simple learning opportunities.”
Bruins set the tone
It didn’t take long for it to be clear that it might not be the Sabres’ night. The Bruins had a very good first 10 minutes or so, rarely leaving the Buffalo end of the ice. Brad Marchand scored his 24th goal on a rebound to put Boston ahead – and it’s rarely a good idea to let the Bruins have a lead.
“I just think they were maybe more ready to play,” Rasmus Ristolainen said. “They played better and we didn’t play at the level of the last game.”
Rask had nine saves in the first period, and one of them was a five-star, 10-bell special. He threw himself across the crease and somehow kept an open shot from Dylan Cozens out of the net. Right then and there, it was easy to have the feeling that goals would not be plentiful on this evening.
And when Connor Clifton’s shot was only partially stopped by goalie Dustin Tokarski (who was pretty sharp this night) and crawled over the goal line, a two-goal lead was looked like a relatively high mountain. It really took until the final 12 minutes before the Bruins at least took some penalties to give the Sabres a little hope. Not only did Buffalo failed to score with a man advantage, but three different times on the night it took a penalty of its own to cut short the power play. Granato said that was another bad sign about how the game went.
“That is an indication of everything I’ve mentioned – not going to the puck, not boxing the other guy out,” he said. “There were lots of signs that we wanted an easier game. That was the difference. That was why you take a penalty. They were one step quicker. It matters a little bit more to them.”
Confused at the end
The Sabres’ final penalty was a clear too many men on the ice call in the last minute. It came after Boston was called for two minors within 27 seconds in the final three minutes, so with the goalie pulled Buffalo had an edge of six skaters to three. But even that didn’t help, as the Sabres didn’t even have many shots on goal.
“It wasn’t good enough,” Granato said. “It was not what we want. There was not enough net focus and net drive. No question it was disappointing. We will look at that. … It was not aggressive enough. We should have multiple pucks at the net. I didn’t like the way anything looked.”
The Devils lost as well on Tuesday night to keep pace with the Sabres, but they did it in unique fashion. New Jersey fell behind Pittsburgh, 6-0, after two periods – only to lose by a final score of 7-6. (Footnote: That’s 36 goals against in seven games.)
The Bruins aren’t likely to give up a lead like that any time soon – not the way they are playing. They have won five games in a row, and the top four teams in the East Division are within four points of each other. The Sabres will get two more chances to match Boston’s intensity in games here on Thursday and Friday nights as they try to fill the role of spoiler.
“I’m glad we play them again,” Granato said. “We get a chance to look at the mirror, look at the video, measure ourselves against a great hockey team that is fighting for every point. There is no easy game for us, and the next game will not be any easier. They are a very competitive group over there. We are trying to advance our team individually and collectively. You want to compete against teams like this. “
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)