By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Amazing? Yes. Stunning? Yes. Crushing? Yes.
Unbelievable? Absolutely not.
Not the way this season is going for the Buffalo Sabres.
“Are there any words?” Sabres defenseman Brandon Montour asked after his team blew a 3-0 lead in the third period and went to lose to the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-3 in overtime.
The Sabres have lost their last 18 games in a row in one form or another (0-15-3), which ties an unofficial NHL record set by the 2003-04 Pittsburgh Penguins. This defeat must be considered the worst one of the bunch. After a strong start, the Sabres slowly unraveled to allow an historically bad situation to become even worse – even when that didn’t seem possible.
“The situation we’re in right now … you can imagine it,” added teammate Rasmus Dahlin.
An early blitz
The most difficult part of the defeat was that there was absolutely no sign that the collapse was coming. Buffalo was the better team for the first 41 minutes. The Flyers had little life, and it was the Sabres who were capitalizing on their opportunities.
Henri Jokiharju took a pass while skating on a clear right side and made Sabre-killing goalie Brian Elliott (two previous shutouts of Buffalo this season) look ordinary with a shot between the legs to open the scoring. The Sabres padded their lead with two more goals in the second period. Cody Eakin beat a goalie for the first time this season (his other goal came into an empty net) with a quick shot from the right side. Montour padded the margin by jumping into space down the middle in opportunistic fashion to score.
“We played a different style,” Dahlin said. “We played with the puck. We had support. You could feel it. We were making really good plays. The guys were having confidence. We created a lot of scoring chances.”
Meanwhile, Linus Ullmark was playing well in goal, and that should have reassured the Sabres. After all, he came into the game with a 5-5-2 record, while the other Buffalo goalies combined were 1-18-2. If the Sabres had scored the game’s next goal, they might have been accused by some giddy fans of running up the score.
Alas, that goal never came. Instead, Kevin Hayes gave the Flyers a pulse by scoring in the first two minutes of the third period on a shot that bounced around like a pinball before reaching its destination. It was almost as if the Philadelphia bench collectively remembered that the team didn’t want to be the one to lose to the Sabres. About nine minutes later, Claude Giroux slam-dunked the puck from close range to make it a 3-2 game.
“At 3-1, it was ‘here we go (again),’” Montour said. “Then it’s 3-2, but you still have the lead. You’ve got to be better.”
The Sabres held on for a while, and still had the one-goal lead when Philadelphia pulled its goalie with a bit less than two minutes less. Tage Thompson missed an empty net by inches soon after that; an slight shooting adjustment would have led to a much different conversation after the game. Instead, Sean Couturier deflected the puck past Ullmark with 1:29 left to send the game to overtime.
It felt inevitable
Just about everyone knew what would happen next. Less than a minute into overtime, the Flyers took off on an odd-man rush, and Ivan Provorov finished the comeback by beating Ullmark.
“I don’t know what to say,” Dahlin said. “I tried to play the puck, and then it was a two-on-one.”
“We made mistakes. We made simple mistakes,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I wouldn’t say we panicked. We didn’t retreat. We stayed active. We just didn’t make the right decisions. It looked to me like we got a little excited and lost our game. … Don’t forget, they are playing against NHL players. What you saw, you’ll see in the NHL playoffs. These situations play out. They (the Flyers) have some serious skill over there, and they can make a lot of out a little. They made the most out of their opportunities. We have a tough time explaining it.”
The immediate question for the Sabres after this one was along the lines of “Where do we go from here?” There were no postgame speeches to the players from Granato this time.
“I don’t want to say anything,” he said. “They should feel what they feel, and we’ll discuss it (Tuesday). Let the emotions run, and then we’ll put some clarity to it. … Did this experience make us better? It’s our job to make that happen.”
The Flyers will be back in the KeyBank Center on Wednesday for the rematch, knowing that their three games here have inflected a great deal of pain on the Sabres. Buffalo’s task will be to have a short memory and move on.
“We know we’re going to be dragged into the past, but we can’t allow that to happen,” Granato said. “We have to worry about the next game.”
They have no other choice.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)