By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
It’s a little early – 45 games into an 82-game season – to think too much about the playoff race. But this might be a time to take a quick peak at the standings.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Sabres were in first place in the overall NHL point race. But the situation has changed quite a bit since then. In fact, Buffalo technically fell into ninth place in the East with a 5-3 loss in the KeyBank Center on Saturday night. The Sabres and Islanders both have 52 points, and they were both passed when the Canadiens beat Colorado to move into seventh. New York has one more win than Buffalo. Thinking about tiebreakers now is a little silly, but still, it’s not easy to be looking up at eight teams after all that’s happened to the Sabres already this season.
“Sure there’s frustration,” Sam Reinhart said. “There’s no time to dwell on it. We are right there, right in the hunt. That were we wanted to be at the start of the year. We want to embrace that challenge. We have to get back to winning points more consistently.”
The Sabres were 20-9-5 after a road win in Boston on Dec. 16. Since then, the team is 3-7-1 to fall to 23-16-6. That means Buffalo only has one more win than loss this season – and remember that the season includes a 10-game winning streak in November.
“We’ve got to go back to work,” coach Phil Housley said. “We have to fight and claw away. Nothing is going to be easy. It will take every shift and every game. If we play 60 minutes, we’ll get on the right side of it.”
If the Sabres were looking to right the ship on Saturday night, and obviously they were, they picked the wrong opponent. Tampa Bay came into the game as the hottest team in the league, having gone 17-1-1 in their previous 19 games. Just to make it tougher, Tampa Bay had Friday night off while the Sabres were losing in Carolina.
The Lightning made it 18-1-1, but it wasn’t easy as the Sabres put up a good fight. Buffalo gave up the first goal in the first minute of the game, but put up two to take the lead after 20 minutes.
The Lightning evened the score in the second, but Buffalo regained the lead on a nifty play from Jason Pominville to Marco Scandella with about 14 minutes left. Could the Sabres make that hold up? Not even close. Buffalo’s lead lasted 23 seconds after what Housley called “a big mistake” that led to a goal by Nikita Kucherov, the NHL’s top scorer.
Then came the game-changing sequence of events later in the third period. Buffalo was on the power play when Jack Eichel was called for elbowing. It was hard to tell what exactly happened on the play; even Eichel wasn’t sure.
“It’s tough. It’s such a fast game,” Eichel said. “If you look at it again, I don’t lift my arm. I don’t move my elbow. I’m just poking at the puck with my stick in trying to avoid him. Incidental contact – I don’t even know how much I clipped him. The refs, it’s tough on them too.”
The official’s call stood, of course, despite a vocal chorus of opposing opinions from the partisan onlookers in the stands. Then Steven Stamkos scored with the assists going to Kucherov and Victor Hedman, a very good trio under any circumstances. You can’t leave such skilled players in position to score in such situations.
“We made the wrong mistakes at the wrong time of the game,” Housley said. “There were some penalties going on, when it was four-on-four. They had two of their best players, and they caught a forward in a bad position on the rush. You can’t give up those opportunities to players like that.”
Ryan Callahan added a power-play goal with 1:19 left, and the fans slowly put on their winter coats and headed out into a chilly night.
One sign of progress
The Sabres have raised their game against the Lightning this season, with one win and two relatively close losses in three stars. That’s a good sign of progress, even if no one believes too much in moral victories.
“Phil has done a great job,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “”With the players they have brought in, they have a good nucleus. It used to be that when you’d come to Buffalo, you thought there was a good chance to get two points. That’s not the case anymore.”
“They are a good team, so you try to elevate your game,” Zach Bogosian said about playing the Lightning. “You have to be a tight checking team against teams like that. They are going to make plays. It’s a super-high-powered offense. We did a good job of keeping them to the outside, but they made it count in the third period.”
Close calls, at least ones that don’t go into extra time, don’t help in the standings. The Sabres are about to enter a very dangerous stretch – five straight road games, including three in Western Canada before the All-Star break. The next home game isn’t until Feb. 1 against Chicago.
“I think it’s really important,” Housley said about the upcoming trip. “Every game is important. We have to recognize our mistakes and learn from them.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)