By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
After 40 minutes of play Tuesday night, the Buffalo Sabres’ prospects for a second straight win looked mighty good.
They hadn’t dominated the Florida Panthers, the last-place team in the Atlantic Division. But the Sabres had a 2-1 lead at the KeyBank Center, where good things have been happening to them for much of the season.
However, Buffalo picked the wrong time to implode. In less than five minutes, the Sabres turned a one-goal lead into a two-goal deficit. Shortly after that, Buffalo lost forward to Jason Pominville to injury in a rather unique manner.
There wasn’t much of a peep out of Buffalo after that. The Sabres dropped a 5-2 decision.
“We lost sight of our game for a while,” Jack Eichel said. “All of a sudden you’re down a few goals. It seems like we lost our momentum. It’s frustrating. We’re at home. We’ve got to find a way to have a better third period.”
For most of the first two periods, the Sabres seemed to be the better team. They never trailed in those 40 minutes, thanks to goals by Jeff Skinner and Rasmus Ristolainen. That’s 25 goals for Skinner, who reached that mark in only 35 goals. No Sabre has been quicker to 25 since Alexander Mogilny in 1992-93.
But late in the second period, a couple of developments happened that reeked of “foreshadowing” in terms of the rest of the game. Keith Yandle of the Panthers grabbed Skinner and threw him into the board, something that could have earned more than a two-minute penalty. But that’s all he received from the officials. Still, a Buffalo goal on the power play would have been huge, and the Sabres didn’t get it.
“If they are going to give me the play, that’s fine,” Skinner said. “We have to stick with it.”
Then Kyle Okposo of Buffalo picked up a hooking penalty in the final minute of the second period. The Panthers didn’t score in the rest of that period. The Sabres had to be thinking that finishing the penalty kill would give them a big jump toward winning the game.
“We have the game at 2-1,” coach Phil Housley said. “We have the opportunity to close things out, and we didn’t do it.”
Far from it. Yandle’s shot from the blue line was deflected in by Aleksander Barkov, and the game was tied at 58 seconds of the third. Less than three minutes later, Evgennii Dadonov got past Rasmus Dahlin and went in on a breakaway. Dahlin hauled him down before he took a shot, and thus Dadonov was awarded a penalty shot. Carter Hutton got a piece of Dadonov’s solo effort, but the puck was knocked just over the line to give the Panthers their first lead.
Seventy-two seconds later, Fran Vatrano made it a 4-2 game for Florida as he scored on a rebound. So it went from 2-1 Sabres to 4-2 Panthers before the five-minute mark.
Shortly after that, a freak play seemed to take a lot of the remaining life out of the Sabres. Ristolainen crashed into Pominville during a line change. Pominville was obviously woozy and had to be helped off the ice. The veteran forward will be fully examined, but some sort of concussion protocol seems to be in Pominville’s future.
“Of course I didn’t see him,” Ristolainen said about the play.
“It’s not an upbeat bench,” Skinner said about the Sabres’ attitude after the rash of bad events. “You have to find a way to make plays, create more chances.”
Buffalo never really threatened the rest of the way, and the Panthers added an empty-netter to make the final score a touch more impressive. Florida finished ahead, 4-0, in the deciding third period.
That’s not supposed to happen to good teams playing lesser squads at home, and now it’s happened twice in December (Philadelphia on Dec. 8). The Sabres still have won three out of five after losing five straight, but this one was something of a warning sign about the immediate future.
“We’ve played a lot of hockey lately,” Housley said. “We’ve had five games in eight nights. We’ve got to keep it simple.”
Buffalo has a couple of days off before its next game, a return to Washington on Friday night.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)