By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
It was almost as if the ball was dropping to celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of the next, the crowd was expectantly roaring … and then everything stopped.
For a second less than 33 minutes, the Buffalo Sabres looked ready to notch one of their best wins of the now half-over season. They had taken a 4-1 lead over a Tampa Bay Lightning team that had been playing great hockey in recent days. Buffalo had received scoring from a variety of sources. Jack Eichel had scored the first short-handed goal of his career, a superstar-level effort that will be shown on the highlights whenever his career is reviewed.
Then it all fell apart – slowly, surely, like a long thread coming out of a cheap piece of clothing. When it was over, Tampa Bay had scored the game’s final five goals to come away with a head-shaking, faith-wavering 6-4 win.
“It’s unacceptable to have a 4-1 lead and lose the game,” Eichel said simply.
No argument. It was the first time this season that the Sabres had carried a lead into the third period, only to lose in regulation time. But even that feels like an understatement of the situation.
In a somewhat loose first half of the game, the Sabres capitalized on their chances while the Lightning didn’t. Conor Sheary had the only goal of the first period, and then assisted on scores by Marcus Johansson and Jimmy Vesey. It was the type of secondary scoring that has been so hard to find at times this season, and obviously a huge if temporary lift.
“We were simple in our game,” Sheary said. “We got pucks behind them and we were going to work. With this group, we have a lot of hard-working guys. That’s when we’re at our best.”
As a sideshow, there were signs that the Sabres wanted to extract some physical payback from a couple of incidents between the teams earlier in the season. Dalton Smith had been called up from Rochester to supply some toughness, and he ended up spending more time in the penalty box (2 minutes) than on the ice (1:26).
Instead, it was Jake McCabe that took matters into his own hands. After Eichel received a clean hit from Mikhail Sergachev, McCabe skated over and started a hopefully cleansing fight. It earned the Sabre defenseman and extra penalty for instigating, but no one seemed to mind.
“No surprise there,” Eichel said about McCabe’s actions. “He’s one of the best teammates you’ll come across. He’s a character guy. You can’t say enough good things about him. It’s a big fight.”
Eichel showed his appreciation with a spectacular cut to the net that left Kevin Shattenkirk wondering where the Sabre captain had gone. Another move left goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy out of the TV picture, and Eichel finished it with a shot into the vacated net. Buffalo had a 4-1 lead, the crowd was cheering like it was almost midnight … what could go wrong?
Johansson took a hooking penalty at 12:59 of the second period, and Alex Killorn tapped in a rebound about a minute later. 4-2. About three minutes later – just about the time when you thought “you don’t want to give these guys another goal in this situation” – Tyler Johnson skated past the Buffalo defense for a breakaway goal. The period ended 4-3, and the momentum had shifted.
“It’s hard to say what happened,” Sheary said. “We got into penalty trouble. Their top guys got a lot of touches, and got some confidence. We didn’t hold our own in the defensive end.”
“We are to blame,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “We gave them more than we took.”
More of the same
Maybe the Sabres could have held off Tampa Bay with a goal early in the third period. Instead, Shattenkirk got some revenge with a goal scored from the middle of the zone. Everyone could guess what would happen next. Killorn did the honors with about 12 minutes to go.
The Lightning did try to give the Sabres some life by taking two minor penalties in the final eight minutes. The Sabres even did a good job of controlling the puck for long stretches. But nothing went into the net – capping an 0 for 4 night with the man advantage. An empty-netter in the final seconds provided the sound of the cork coming out of Tampa Bay’s celebratory champagne.
“We’ve got to put pucks on net,” Krueger said about the power play. “Without shots, there’s no fruit of our labors.”
The Sabres finished 2019 more or less the way they started it – losing games. Buffalo has dropped its last four games and is 1-6-1 in its last eight. No rational person would reduce the team’s playoff chances to 0 percent just because of this one damaging loss, but clearly it has put a good-sized roadblock in the team’s attempt to get out of this slump as the 2020 part of the schedule gets underway on Thursday.
“You have lots of tests in a season, and this is a painful one,” Krueger said. “A very painful one.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)