By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
It was easy to tell on Thursday night that the Buffalo Sabres were going to have an unusual night at the KeyBank Center.
The first clue was obtained simply by merely looking around the building. Thursday’s opponent, the Montreal Canadiens, usually have plenty of supporters from fans who flock across the border to see their favorites. On this night, red uniforms were out in force.
Perhaps those visitors realized it might be a good night to be able to out-cheer the home fans for a change. The Sabres were coming off a discouraging loss against Ottawa on Tuesday, one that had provided material for rants and complaints on talk shows and social media. Fans of losing teams sometimes reach a tipping point for resignation during the course of the season, and apparently Tuesday night was that time.
Then came the start of the game, and the Sabres’ goalie was different. Carter Hutton was the starter for only the second time in the last five weeks. Hutton got the call because regular Linus Ullmark is out for three to four weeks after an awkward spill on Tuesday. The injury wasn’t as bad as it could have been – it was easy to imagine a torn ligament on the play – but it sure didn’t lift the spirits of a team that hope to use an insane stretch of home games as a springboard toward reentering the playoff race.
There were more irregularities along the way, as we discovered. However, the result was unacceptable. Buffalo lost a 3-1 decision to the Canadiens before 16,604.
The biggest surprise of the night might have been the way the game was played. These are two teams on the fringe of playoff contention, but there wasn’t a great deal of emotion on display at the time. That was Topic A on the Buffalo side after the game.
“We’re playing teams that are playing more desperate than we are,” Hutton said. “We have to find a way to meet that, especially at home.”
“That’s the hard part,” Curtis Lazar said. “We have to figure that out pretty quick. It’s a very crucial homestand, and we’ve lost two. The schedule isn’t going to get easier. We need more urgency throughout the lineup.”
“We were not desperate enough – not nearly desperate enough,” Jake McCabe added. “That’s been the message in the room, especially after today. The guys have to remember the position we’re in. The last two games, we’ve let ourselves down.”
The game couldn’t have started any better for the Sabres. They had a 1-0 lead and took the first nine shots of the games. The Canadiens looked ready to write this one off as soon as the deficit became overwhelming – which would have been 2-0. But that second goal never came.
“It’s difficult to understand really. We came out of the gate as well as we hoped to do,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “We didn’t create as much offensively as we would have liked. We needed to get a 2-0 lead. I thought Montreal did a good job of regrouping. We just came out flat in the second period.”
That’s for sure. Ilya Kovalchuk found a loose puck in the first minute and looked like a kid again in snapping home a quick shot. About three minutes later, Brendan Gallagher of the Canadiens was left absolutely by himself in front of the net. In a different sport, he could have been criticized for “basket hanging.” The forward got the puck, made a nifty little move – he had enough time to think about it – and scored what proved to be the game-winner.
That, more or less, was the game. Hutton wasn’t the problem, as he was good enough to keep the Sabres within striking distance. The veteran has had that sort of luck at times this season.
“From there we couldn’t get anything going,” he said. “If you aren’t getting good looks against Carey Price, he can make it look easy.”
Krueger took the unusual move of moving Evan Rodrigues, who was scratched on Tuesday, on to the Sabres’ big line with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. That didn’t work out, and trying Krueger and Conor Sheary on the power play didn’t help either. Krueger reunited Jeff Skinner with Eichel and Reinhart in the third period. No dice.
Montreal wrapped it up with an empty-netter in the final minutes, prompting their fans to start singing in the game’s final moments. By then, there weren’t enough Buffalo backers in the building to drown them out.
The Sabres’ hopes for a turnaround during a stretch that sees them play nine of 10 at home have been reduced greatly with these two losses. Eight-and-two seems less than possible at the moment. So what’s the cure for not getting too discouraged?
“To be honest, tune you guys (in the media) out,” McCabe said. “Tune the negativity out. We’ve got a lot of good guys in here, a group that’s really focused. Just tune the negativity out. Just focus on the positive and the small picture.”
To do that, McCabe and the Sabres had better turn off their radios and stay off their phones as well. A lot of people are jumping off the bandwagon these days, and it’s going to be a huge task to halt the cynicism that surrounds the team at this moment.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)