By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
As the long National Hockey League season winds down, it becomes more and more evident that the Buffalo Sabres are headed a locker clean-out date of April 7 – right after the end of the regular season.
Most of the reasons why were on display on Monday night at the KeyBank Center, when the Sabres dropped a somewhat – but only somewhat – surprising 4-3 loss to the Edmonton Oilers.
The numbers tell a depressing story. The team fell to 30-28-8, which puts them a season-low six games under the .500 mark. The Sabres were at .500 (28-21-7) on Feb. 12 after beating the Islanders. Since then, though, Buffalo has gone 2-7-1.
So with 16 games to go, the Sabres have 68 points – nine behind the Pittsburgh Penguins and Montrreal Canadiens. Columbus and Philadelphia are ahead of Buffalo as well, and Florida is a point behind with a game in hand.
The Sabres would need to go on a long winning streak, and then have the teams in front of them all beat up on each other for any sort of chance at catching them all. It’s possible in theory, but it’s difficult to imagine after watching these last 10 games. In addition – as has been repeated frequently for some time – the squad hasn’t won two straight games since December. Eight wins in a row, or something like it, seems inconceivable for all but those wearing the largest of rose-colored glasses.
“We’re not pleased with it,” Jason Pominville said about the team’s situation. “But we’re going to fight through it. We can’t sit here and think (the season) is a failure. We have to think of the positives we’ve done. We’ve come a long way. The room’s been really good this year. There are a lot of positives, but tonight was a tough one.”
In control for a while
That it was, because it seemed like the Sabres were headed to a relatively easy win through the first half of the game. Buffalo gave up a short-handed goal to the Oilers in the opening minutes, but bounced right back to take a 3-1 lead by the end of the first period. Jack Eichel had a pair of goals to run his total to six in the last five games; his game seems to have gotten better as the season has gone on. Casey Mittelstadt added the third goal on a nifty pass from Scott Wilson. The two of them teamed with Pominville to form a line that generated some offense at times.
“It’s been good,” Mittelstadt said about playing with the two veterans. “They do a great job of staying at the right spots, getting open. He made a good play to me (on the goal).”
With five minutes left in the second period, the Oilers displayed little energy or interest in the game. It looked as if they would have to settle for a 2-2-1 road trip, despite their own problems of being eight points out of a playoff spot entering the game.
But then, in the next five minutes, everything changed. Zack Kassian got Edmonton going by scoring on a brilliant cross-ice pass from Connor McDavid. Kassian has three goals against the Sabres this season; he scored three goals in his entire 27-game career as a Sabre. Darrell Nurse soon tied it up. Then Kyle Brodiak’s shot from the blue line trickled through Linus Ullmark’s pads and crossed the goal line with less than three seconds left in the period. It was an emotional stomach punch to all concerned.
Just like that, the Oilers had the lead for good. It looked far too much like a recent game in Toronto where a brief defensive letdown led to a Maple Leafs scoring burst that decided the game.
“We have them backed up and we should have stepped on their throats for sure,” Mittlestadt said.
“We’ve got to play a full 60 minutes,” coach Phil Housley of the Sabres said. “We’ve got to check. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have come away with two points.”
A glorious opportunity
Edmonton didn’t seem too interested in padding its lead during much of the third period. The Sabres had a couple of great opportunities to tie the contest. Pominville received the puck right on the doorstep for what figured to be an easy tap-in. Somehow, some way, the shot was mis-hit and redirected on Pominville’s recoil. It didn’t go in.
“I can probably take I don’t know how many shots from there, and it might never happen. But it happened tonight,” he said. “Clearly it was going in, and I double-touched it on the way back. It was just a tough feeling when you see it going in and then coming out.
“I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Edmonton ran out the clock, throwing some more dirt on the hill that the Sabres must climb to reach the postseason – all while knowing there’s a time limit before they are kicked off the mountain until autumn. Now it’s on to Chicago and Colorado, two other teams on the outside of the playoff picture at this writing. Eichel said it’s a matter of putting this one in the rear-view mirror, even though there are a great many games back there that are dragging the team’s hopes to a halt.
“For us, it’s focusing on the next day, the next game,” he said. “It’s all you can do. The more narrow the focus, the better for the group. We want to win every night – that’s our goal.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)