By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
It only took a moment for a dark cloud to engulf the Buffalo Sabres during their 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators at the KeyBank Center on Tuesday night.
The Sabres were losing, 3-2, midway through the third period when goalie Linus Ullmark tried to routinely move from one side of the crease to the other. But something – maybe a skate caught in a rut in the ice – forced him to bend his right leg in an awkward position. The netminder went down, and he stayed down.
And almost concurrently, any thoughts that the Sabres had a chance to make a long-shot run at a playoff position seemed to disappear from the 16,651 in the building. Ullmark was helped to the dressing room without being able to put any weight on his leg.
“He’s got a lower-body situation,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “He’ll be looked at tomorrow. Looking at it, he fell back and had his full weight on it. It’s always painful to watch that kind of situation.”
The team probably will announce some news on the situation on Wednesday. It’s difficult to think that the goalie will be back in action in the relatively near future, and it’s also difficult not to think at least about the dreaded Worst Case Scenario – out for the season. That could mean the Sabres might be looking at more than two months of meaningless hockey, something we’ve seen too often in the past decade.
Tom Petty was right. The waiting is the hardest part.
Missing piece of the puzzle
This was supposed to be the start of the Sabres’ last opportunity to make a run at a playoff spot. The team came into the game with a 14-6-3 record at home, and it was scheduled to play nine of its next 10 games in the KeyBank Center.
Ullmark has adapted well this season to becoming the team’s No. 1 goalie. He had a 2.70 goals-against average with a .914 save percentage entering the game. Ullmark hasn’t been an elite player for the most part, but he’s been good and consistent – a life raft considering the way backup Carter Hutton has struggled this season (no wins since October 22).
Let’s put it this way – if you had to pick two players who were the most indispensable to the team at this moment, Jack Eichel and Ullmark would be the choices.
“He’s been unbelievable,” Marcus Johansson said. “He’s been winning games, and hopefully he won’t be out too long.”
There had been enough bad news from a Buffalo standpoint before the Ullmark injury. The Sabres couldn’t have asked for a better opponent to start a key run of games. Ottawa had a dreary 5-15-4 record on the road entering the game, and had played an overtime game on Monday night. Yes, the Sabres figured to be rusty at the start of the game, but they’d probably get over it just as the Senators were running slightly out of gas.
It didn’t quite go according to plan. Johansson thought it only took a couple of shifts to take care of the rust, but nothing seemed to click the rest of the way.
“There were some spurts – some pressure at the end of the second period,” said Jeff Skinner, back in the lineup after recovering from an injury. “We weren’t able to sustain it. For whatever reason, they outplayed us in the first period. We weren’t able to sustain any pressure.”
“You can’t play like that at home,” Eichel said. “That’s not a playoff-caliber effort by us. You know that. I know that. Everybody in the room knows that.”
Turning on the power
The biggest problem for the Sabres was that their penalty-killing picked the wrong night to have an off night. The Senators had three power-play goals, breaking ties each time. They added a couple of empty-netters in the final minutes, including a 170-foot bank shot off the boards on a clearing play by Mark Borowiecki.
“We took too many penalties, unnecessary penalties, and we didn’t kill them off,” Johansson said. “We’ve been good with that lately, but not tonight.”
The Sabres have faced adversity in the past, and often responded with a bit of life that recent Buffalo teams might not have been able to match. This felt worse.
What do you do in this situation? Try to win the next game. Because, what else can you do?
“We come here every day and hear from you guys how many points we’re out (of the playoffs),” Eichel said. “It’s important to keep it small. If you overlook things, it will bite you in the (butt) like it did tonight. Every game should be the most important thing.”
Buffalo will put its short-term memory to the test when it hosts Montreal on Thursday.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)