By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page
It was an afternoon that could be summed up in just a couple of moments, only minutes apart.
The first came in the final two minutes of play, when the Buffalo Sabres were fighting to tie the game against the Anaheim Ducks. Jeff Skinner, who hasn’t scored a goal against Dec. 2, had a good opportunity in the slot.
Typical of Skinner’s luck lately, goalie Ryan Miller – more on him later – caught the shot.
“I’d like to get more on that, but they had a couple of guys coming in,” Skinner said. “I didn’t want to get boxed. He made a decent save.”
With that, Skinner looked up at the roof of the KeyBank Center. It was almost as if he was asking a couple of questions at the same time. What do I have to do to put the puck in the net? And, what do the Sabres have to do to turn their fortunes around?
There were no answers to those questions on a Sunday afternoon at the KeyBank Center. Buffalo finished with a 3-2 loss to the Ducks before 16,131. The Sabres are now 1-4-1 in their last six home games, and 2-4-1 so far in this stretch of 10 games that looked so critical for their efforts to salvage this season.
A terrible start
It was a strange afternoon of hockey. Anaheim came to town only one spot from the bottom of the Western Conference. Yet the Ducks dominated play in the very early going, jumping out to a 3-0 lead.
“You look at the start. They took advantage of every opportunity they had,” coach Ralph Krueger said.
By the time, Anaheim had scored its third goal, rookie goalie Jonas Johansson half-expected to be waved over to the bench. He had been told early in the morning that Carter Hutton would miss the game due to family issues, and Andrew Hammond was hurriedly recalled from Rochester to be the backup.
“It comes to your mind,” Johansson said about the possibility of being lifted. “But you put it away and focus on the next shot.”
The rookie gave himself and his team a boost about five minutes later. Troy Terry was awarded a penalty shot when he was brought down by defenseman Lawrence Pilut on a breakaway. Johansson stopped that solo effort, and didn’t allow a goal for the rest of the afternoon. In other words, he gave the Sabres a chance to come back.
“It was a little bounce-back ,” Johansson said. “That felt nice. But I’ve got to get better at starts. I felt like I let the team down a little bit. I have to step up there and be better to help the team and get us some points.”
Near the end of the period, Johan Larsson stole the puck around the blue line, skated in alone and scored. A 3-1 deficit is a big improvement over a 4-0 margin, and the team took advantage of that the rest of the way.
“We started playing with the puck,” Rasmus Dahlin said. “Everyone wanted to create. Everyone wanted to be involved. After those three goals, we told each other – it’s not what we want.”
Dahlin did his part with a power-play goal in the second period. His shot from the point went through all sorts of traffic caused by Jimmy Vesey and Rasmus Ristolainen, and the margin was down to one.
Dahlin on his game
Dahlin did all he could to push the Sabres to the tie. He seemed to handle the puck with confidence, as he showed why he’s considered the best young defenseman in the league.
“We tried to match him with Jack (Eichel) in the third period,” Krueger said. “You could feel the power of the group. Defensively he’s so confident right now. It’s hard to be too excited after a loss, but there were moments of brilliance by him tonight.”
Anaheim looked very shaky early in the third period, but settled down a bit after that. Still, the outcome was in doubt until the final buzzer.
And when the three stars were announced, the second gesture took place. Third star Miller took a particularly long skate. He paused for a moment and waved to the applauding crowd, which still appreciates what he did here. The goalie was mighty good for his 11 years in Buffalo. This was Miller’s 385th career win which puts him into a tie for 15th place on the all-time NHL list. A total of 284 of those wins came in a Sabre uniform.
Miller is 39 years old. Who knows if he’ll ever win another game as an NHL goalie in this building? He had a right to enjoy the moment.
“It’s nice to come back here,” Miller told an Anaheim television outlet. “I love seeing the people here. It’s a great time. It’s always a little nerve-racking because I love Buffalo so much. It’s emotional for me.”
It was six years ago this month that Miller left Buffalo in a trade with St. Louis. In hindsight, it was the end of an era. The Sabres haven’t been the same team since he left, and Sunday’s game was another example that a return to those happier days is still in the distance.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)
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