By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Now … where were we?
Oh, right. Hockey season.
Last time, you remember, the Sabres had just lost to the Devils on January 31 by a score of 5-3. Some of the postgame was discussion was how one of the New Jersey players (Kyle Palmieri) could play against Buffalo in the KeyBank Center on Saturday, drop off the roster 24 hours later, and watch his teammates play a rematch that afternoon. You didn’t have to work for the Center for Disease Control to wonder if that was going to be a good idea.
Sure enough, Covid-19 went on something of a rampage through locker rooms of the Devils and the Sabres – the latter apparently disproving the theory that the virus wouldn’t spread easily among members of an opposing team. Players dropped off the roster about as fast as games fell off the schedule. No one said this season in a pandemic was going to be easy.
Finally, the Sabres got back to work on Monday night in the KeyBank Center. They had an Olympic-sized break with 15 days between games. It was hard to expect much from them under the circumstances, especially when the Islanders were playing well (3-0-3 in their last six) and coming off a big win against the Bruins. They neither needed nor wanted a big break in the schedule right now.
Sure enough, New York played what we used to call a terrific road game in taking a 3-1 decision. Whether it was a case of the Sabres running out of gasoline or the Islanders putting on a clinic of disciplined hockey depended on who was doing the talking.
“Obviously that plays a part in it,” Sabres’ winger Victor Olofsson said about the break. “We have to get back in game shape. Obviously it’s frustrating when we don’t get the offense going. We have to play a little bit smarter. We’re making it a little bit harder.”
“I don’t think it was fatigue,” Kyle Okposo countered with his explanation about the contest. “We got away from our game a little bit. We got sucked into what feed their game. They know how to play with a lead. They know how to lock things down. I really liked our start, but we didn’t capitalize on opportunities.”
It probably was a combination of factors, of course. Still, the number that everyone will remember from this game is Buffalo’s shot total in the third period: zero. It’s only the fourth time in team history that the Sabres have put up a goose egg for the full 20 minutes. The last time was on October 7, 2011 … in Helsinki, Finland. What’s more, the Sabres won that game, 4-1. Thank you, Ryan Miller. By the way, there weren’t any shots in the final three-plus minutes of the second period, either.
There’s obviously little difference between having a couple of shots on goal in a period and none. It simply sounds much worse. Still, no one was saying it was a good sign.
“Of course when you see a zero, that’s going to be highlighted,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “They just played a strong inside game. They gave us some space in the neutral zone zone but closed quickly in the D zone. Not getting anything to the net is the reason for the final score.”
“That’s not good enough,” Olofsson said. “We’re going to throw puck at the net. It went in and out of their end really quickly. Zero shots, yes, that’s awful.”
There wasn’t too much drama in this one. Olofsson had a good chance to give Buffalo a first-period lead, but New York goalie Semyon Varlamov kept the puck out of the net. New York soon followed with late goals by Anders Lee (tip-in over goalie Linus Ullmark) and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (picking the top near corner from the right side on a shot that Ullmark needs to stop).
Olofsson got the goal back early in the second period on the power play, but New York regained its two-goal lead about eight minutes. Josh Bailey slid a hard to Brock Nelson, who was alone by the crease. Nelson needed only to redirect the puck for a goal that took a lot of air out of the Sabres’ balloon.
The Sabres now have power-play goals in their last six games, and are rather close to the top of the league in that department. The problem is that the team has been having some problems generating offense at even strength.
“We have to make a play. That’s it,” Jack Eichel said. “It’s been frustrating all season. It hasn’t been there five-on-five. It seems like we’re sloppy. We don’t make many plays. It’s tough to score in this league when you do that.”
As you’d expect, the Sabres have dropped to the bottom of the East Division standings with 10 points in 11 games. They have games in hand against everyone but the Devils, so it’s only a temporary problem in theory. Still, Buffalo will have to play its way into collective condition, as the Covid Gang continues to return to duty. The Sabres will play at least every other day for the next month, with the next two-day break coming on March 14 and 15. At the least, it’s a dangerous part of the season.
“The best part is we’ve got another game in less than 24 hours,” Okposo said.
Yes, the Islanders didn’t have to worry about catching a flight somewhere after the game. The same two teams will do it again Tuesday night.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)