By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The “Ghosts of Christmas Past” appeared unexpectedly at the KeyBank Center on Saturday afternoon.
The Buffalo Sabres played like their namesakes from the 2017 season – a team that was already just about out of the playoff picture before the first gift had been bought, let alone unwrapped. The result was a 6-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers – a team that was tied for last place in the Eastern Conference entering the game.
It was Buffalo’s fifth straight loss after winning 10 games in a row, and it was an ugly one. The Sabres turned a 2-0 lead into a four-goal loss – their largest defeat since a 5-1 defeat in San Jose on October 18. Allowing six straight goals under any circumstances is unacceptable.
“It was a stinker,” coach Phil Housley said, a quote that will pop up in every account of the game – and deservedly so.
“The streak we were on, that’s over,” captain Jack Eichel said. “We’re losing sight of what’s made us successful. We have to work hard. That’s a prime example. They outworked us for 40 minutes, and that’s why the game ended 6-2.”
No repeat performance
In the first meeting between the teams here back on Nov. 21, the Sabres jumped out to a nice 3-0 lead. Yes, the Flyers got a couple of goals to make it interesting, but Buffalo responded to get a good-sized win.
This time, the Sabres started almost the same way. Eichel showed terrific speed in getting shooting room on the right side in opening the scoring. About eight minutes later, he made a nifty deflection of a shot from the point by Lawrence Pilut (first NHL point). What could go wrong?
“We came out pretty strong,” Housley said. “We had a good start. We had an opportunity to seal the game right there, but give their goalie (Anthony Stolarz) credit. He made some big saves.”
Meanwhile, James van Riemsdyk got one of the goals back off a faceoff to cut the margin to a more manageable one goal. It was a loosey-goosey first period with a combined 32 shots. But then the Sabres’ game slacked off, especially on defense.
“We didn’t play a good second period,” Eichel said. “I thought we were in our zone too much.”
Ivan Provorov (who finished a +5 for the afternoon) got the tying goal, the only score in a second period. Still, it was 2-2 at home with 20 minutes left. The 18,283 in the building had gotten used to dramatic victories by their favorites in the last few weeks. And their hopes rose when the Sabres earned their first power play with only 2:15 gone in the third period.
Except, the Flyers were the team that capitalized. How many times do you see a three-on-one break by a short-handed team? Philadelphia had one off a Sam Reinhart turnover, and Claude Giroux finished off the break by scoring on Linus Ullmark.
Thoughts of a comeback by the Sabre faithful turned into thoughts of beating the traffic after the Flyers scored three goals in less than three minutes of the third period. The Buffalo defense, admittedly a bit banged up these days, frequently broke down in allowing Philadelphia some glittering scoring chances.
“We didn’t check, and we left him (Ullmark) out there for the fourth, fifth and sixth goals,” Housley said. “That was tough.”
“They’ve got a very good team with lots of skill,” added Ullmark, who suffered his first regulation loss of the season. “They got some bounces to keep us from coming back.”
The final outcome certainly came as something of a shock to everyone watching. Even during the previous four losses, the Sabres had played well and been competitive against top-notch teams. The task now is to simply write this off as a bad day and move on to Tuesday night’s game against the even more lowly Los Angeles Kings – owners of the league’s worst record.
“You can’t go out there and expect to win,” Eichel said. “That’s the biggest lesson we’ve got to learn here. It takes a lot of hard work. I think we’ve gotten away from that.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)