By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Sometimes it’s easy to look at the schedule and figure a particular team is bound to win.
Sunday afternoon was one of those days for the Buffalo Sabres, at least on paper.
The Sabres were playing their fourth straight home game, and had a chance to make a bit of a statement with a win. A victory over the Devils would have put them at 3-0-1 for the homestand. What’s more, Buffalo hadn’t played its best on Saturday afternoon against New Jersey but still won in a shootout.
On the other hand, the Devils are considered to be the weakest team in the MassMutual East, at least based on last season. New Jersey was using Eric Comrie in goal, who had never played an NHL game with the Devils and had only played in eight such contests going into the game. He didn’t need to introduce himself to his teammates before the game, but you get the idea. It didn’t sound like a recipe for success.
Somehow, this game got off script – which might be a credit to New Jersey. The Sabres never could get the lead and fell by a score of 5-3 at the KeyBank Center. It was a game to remember only because of some lessons it might teach.
“I thought they played a very good game,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “They were hounding us persistently all night. I wouldn’t say we weren’t working. We weren’t working smart. Our puck management was really bad tonight. We were playing into their hustle. We were playing into their checking. … They deserved the win, but we managed the puck poorly through transition. It fed what they are good at, fed their offense, fed their speed. It’s a disappointing evening.”
Right off the hop
It didn’t take long for the Devils to make a statement that this would be a different day than Saturday. Michael McLeod got a breakaway soon after the opening faceoff and beat Carter Hutton for a goal at the 20-second mark.
“You don’t get to choose how you start the game, but that’s not what we wanted,” said Hutton, playing in his first game in a couple of weeks. “I can’t control that. You have to battle that. It’s the last thing we wanted at the start.”
Nineteen minutes went by without much happening. But with 16.1 seconds left in the period, Andreas Johnsson made it a 2-0 game for New Jersey. Goals scored in the first and last minute of the period often are haunting; another example of that theory is coming soon.
Buffalo got those two goals back in a span of 1:12 in the second period. Curtis Lazar deflected a shot by Rasmus Ristolainen from the right point to make it a one-goal game, and Rasmus Dahlin found the net from the middle of the blue line to tie things at 2-2.
“When I see a lane, I shoot. It’s as simple as that,” Dahlin said.
It looked as if it would stay that way until the end of the second period. Then Miles Wood of the Devils got behind the defense in the final seconds. His first shot was stopped by Hutton, but the second went into the net – a mere nine-tenths of a second before the buzzer sounds.
“That’s unacceptable in times when you need to be strong,” Krueger said. “You have to understand where you are for game management. If that’s a lesson that stops that in the future, that’s good. We have to look at that in the eyes.”
One last rally
Ristolainen jammed home a rebound with 3:53 gone in the third period to re-tie the game. The defenseman is a handful for other teams when he around the net in power-play situations, and he enjoys being on the other side of that equation.
“I’m a defenseman, and if other teams have good net-front presence, I know how hard it is to play a game playing in front of the net,” Ristolainen said. “I can get in front of the net and make chaos, and I enjoy it.”
Krueger added, “It’s something we had a lot of success with last year. It’s a curve ball that changes the mix. He has so much fun with that. Risto is in outstanding form this season – much deserving of extra ice time and this role. It consumes the goalie and the defense out front. It becomes a 4 on 3.”
But that turned out to be the Sabres’ last gasp. A turnover in the Buffalo zone led to McLeod scoring again. Wood picked up an empty-netter with eight seconds to go to supply the last punctuation mark.
The Sabres finished their first 10 games of the season at 4-4-2. That’s not bad, but it includes two games each with the Rangers, Devils and a weakened Capitals roster. That’s probably not the pace of a playoff team. Still, at least there’s a clear path to improvement. Jack Eichel, Taylor Hall and Jeff Skinner have combined for only three goals this season. They’ll certainly do better the rest of the way … I think.
In the meantime, the division is rather bunched so far this season. Washington leads with an odd-looking 6-0-3 record, and the Rangers are last at 2-4-2. That sort of competitive race means a hot streak can move a team up in the playoff race quickly. On the other hand, it also means there are no easy games.
“Teams like New Jersey and the Rangers, they are in a similar situation to us,” Ristolainen said. “We are the teams trying to sneak into the playoff battle. These are important games. We are a better team, but we have to match their work ethic.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)