By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The Buffalo Sabres finished Thursday’s loss to the New York Rangers with a 7-23-6 record, with the “six” representing points earned in overtime or shootout losses.
Let’s make one thing quite clear at the start: One of those six bonus points should be fully credited to Sabres goalie Dustin Tokarski.
He was brilliant throughout the game, making 44 saves in almost 65 minutes of work. Alas, despite a last-second reprieve to send the game into overtime, the Sabres couldn’t avoid dropping a 3-2 decision.
“I would have felt a lot better if he got the win,” forward Tage Thompson said. “He played a great game. You have to be proud of the way we battled back. The effort was there tonight.”
“He stepped up when we needed him to do it,” teammate Rasmus Asplund said. “It was a really good game for him.”
The biggest reason why the team has been playing better in the last four games (1-1-2) has been goaltending. Linus Ullmark gave Buffalo a chance to win in its previous three games. Then on Thursday, Tokarski had to look at 47 shots – a season-high by a Sabre opponent this season. That he did what was necessary to keep Buffalo competitive was encouraging, since the goalies not named Ullmark are now 1-18-3 combined.
Coach Don Granato wasn’t sure what has gone into the difference in records among the goaltenders.
“I don’t know, and I haven’t seen signs of anything changing with respect to Linus being in or out,” he said. “We held the fort (against the Rangers). They didn’t get any easy second chances, with the way we battled, the way we fought.”
Thursday’s contest figured to be a difficult one for the Sabres. They had an emotional win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday night to break an 18-game losing streak, earned while the Rangers were relaxing at a Buffalo hotel around the corner at the same time. That can be a combination for a letdown.
At the start, the Sabres’ play on Wednesday carried over for a night. Asplund knocked in a puck during a goalmouth scramble at 2:06, and the Sabres had the early lead. By the way, that’s three goals in eight games for Asplund. If you had him with as many goals as Jeff Skinner and more goals than Jack Eichel or Taylor Hall at this point in the season, well, maybe it’s time for you to consider a new career as either a fortune-teller or a hockey writer.
The Rangers came back well in the second period, piling up a 15-2 edge in shots. The air was pretty clearing coming out of the Sabres’ tires like a slow leak. Luckily for them, Tokarski was very solid in goal, and New York didn’t get that many easy rebound attempts. Only Colin Blackwell could solve him.
“I think in the second, we got too spaced apart,” Thompson said. “Our support wasn’t tight enough. They took it to us. Good teams will make you pay.”
“Fatigue is a factor when you play back to back and the other team didn’t,” Granato said. “There’s no way around it. You’re going to have to deal with it. We spoke the team after the second period, and that was the message. Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. You have to find a way to change the mindset and fight our way through.”
New York kept pushing at the start of the third, and was rewarded when Filip Chytil scored on a scramble play near the net. The Rangers still kept shooting until the final minute, piling up 21 shots for the period. That meant Tokarski had a save a minute.
But New York made the mistake of icing the puck with about 14 seconds left. Buffalo won the faceoff, Casey Mittelstadt made a nice pass from the boards to Thompson, and the winger found the net through some traffic with 3.6 seconds left in regulation time.
“He (Mittelstadt) made a great play,” Thompson said. “It started with a battle on the wall. … I just tried to get it down low and found the right side of the net.”
The overtime session saw plenty of easy skating around the rink but not many chances. But a defensive mistake in the New York zone led to a two-on-one the other way. Artemi Panarin’s closing pass to Mika Zibanejad was as perfect as Zibanejad’s shot. Goal, set, match.
The Sabres’ problems remain steep. They are, of course, 1-15-4, in their last 20 starts, and they lost another playing piece when Curtis Lazar went on injured reserve with a long-term injury (“week to week”). But if Buffalo can get some consistent goaltending on a nightly basis from both men at that position, better times should follow.
“I think things are a little bit more predictable for Linus and me,” Tokarski said about what’s gone right lately. “The guys got in lanes. We know where shots are coming from. There’s going to be some (shots) for sure. To limit those and let the goalie see the shots – it’s been better the last several days.”
The two teams play again on Saturday night at the KeyBank Center.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)