By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Every game for the Buffalo Sabres has been an adventure lately. You know they are going to lose, but you just don’t know how.
Let’s briefly look back on the last five games. Toronto overwhelmed the Sabres with their speed. Montreal outscored Buffalo. The Sabres dominated New Jersey but had no scoring touch. Ottawa, the league’s worst team, was by far the better squad that night.
Thursday night’s game was a new touch. The Sabres came back from a pair of two-goal deficits, including one in the last five minutes, to tie the Detroit Red Wings. Yet Buffalo still lost in overtime by a 5-4 count.
That’s one win in the last 13 games for the Sabres – 1-10-2 in that span to be precise. If you’d like to go back to Valentine’s Day – and you probably don’t – Buffalo is 3-15-3. Their 31 wins for the season are still one behind the season total of the University at Buffalo’s men’s basketball team. Who thought that might be possible?
We’re at the point where moral victories about the only thing that matters. Maybe the Sabres had a couple of those on Thursday night.
“I think it was good that we battled back,” Casey Mittelstadt said. “To come back and get those two (goals) with six minutes left was huge for us. (We’ve) just got to start finishing gams better, finish them in overtime.”
Youngsters play well
With little at stake, much of the attention on the game focused on young prospects up from the minors to taste their first cup of coffee in the major league level. In this case, everyone was keeping tabs on Victor Olofsson, just up from Rochester. He didn’t do anything to contradict the idea that he should be ready to compete for a regular job with the Sabres next season – or that he might have helped the parent team earlier in the season.
“I was a little nervous before the game,” Olofsson said. “After a few shifts it went away. (There were) some good things, and some things I have to work on.”
The Swedish prospect was handed a nice welcoming gift by coach Phil Housley when Olofsson was placed on a line with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. They didn’t even have time to practice together, but the line did fine.
“I thought he brought a really good spark to our team,” Eichel said about Olofsson. “There’s a combination of skill, the way he competes hard on pucks, and he’s a smart player. Obviously (he has) an elite shot. It was good to get out there.”
Olofsson wasn’t the only “youngster” on the ice. Injuries to Zach Bogosian and Rasmus Ristolainen meant the defense was on the inexperienced side. Housley had few complaints about their performance.
“I really liked the way our young guys played,” he said. “(Olofsson) made some really strong plays, had some opportunities. Will Borgen was really steady back there. Casey Mittelstadt had some jump in his step. Lawrence (Pilut) had a very solid game.”
Sad finish after rally
The Sabres never led in this game, which went back and forth. Buffalo received no reward for an 11-1 burst in shots on goal to start the game, and Detroit countered to take a 2-0 lead by early in the second period. Buffalo got those back before the end of the second period. The Red Wings’ Dylan Larkin put a pair of pucks into the net, but the Sabres answered with two goals in 41 seconds to tie things. Olofsson made a nifty pass to set up an Eichel breakaway to tie the game with 4:18 left.
“I heard him calling for the puck,” Olofsson said. “I was trying to get it to the middle, and he made a great finish.”
But then in overtime, Olofsson missed the net on a shot, and the puck headed back the other way. Tyler Bertuzzi of the Red Wings finished the job with a hard shot from the right side on Linus Ullmark. It happens. As Eichel said, “He’s trying to score a goal. I’ve been in the same position.”
It’s a curious time for the Sabres and their fans. No one knows what might happen in the offseason, but anything seems possible. Firings, trades, restructuring – they all are on the table. This run of losses over the past six weeks has erased any feeling that the team is heading in the right direction in its rebuilding program.
And for those in attendance, it would be interesting to know how many people were actually in the building on Thursday (as opposed to the 16,236 figure that was announced). Some of those were gone with eight minutes left and the Red Wings leading by a goal – when the photo above was taken. The opposite of enthusiasm is not disdain, but rather apathy. There’s plenty of that around these days as we head into the final 10 days of the campaign.
Everyone is just counting the minutes until this season comes to a merciful conclusion – a season that looked so promising back in November, and a season that may now be remembered for its historic collapse at the finish.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)