So you're the Buffalo Sabres heading into the second game of a home-and-home against a division rival while being outscored 22-10 on a very treacherous 1-4-1 slide with a weak forward group made even weaker due to injury. The team you're playing is the Boston Bruins, who sit third in the NHL, have the NHL's best goal differential (+33,) the league's second best goals-against average (2.42,) are seventh in goals/game (3.40,) and have the third best powerplay (26.7%) and the third-best penalty kill (84.7%.) The keys to victory revolve around playing your game while limiting mistakes and keeping it close in a place where the home team has lost only once all season.
Such was the task at hand for the Sabres last night and props to them for playing their game. Buffalo took it to Boston much of the night but the Bruins did what most top teams do while facing weaker opponents playing a strong game--take advantage of miscues.
It's amazing how that theme resonates throughout professional sports. For instance in baseball, the NY Yankees of the late 90's/early 00's were famous for making teams pay when they were given an extra out. It was tough enough to get out of an inning against them with three outs, give them another and it was nearly impossible. In the NFL, Buffalo fans witnessed first-hand what happens when you stop a team like the New England Patriots but take a penalty to extend their drive. The great teams smell blood and take advantage of the opportunity and that's what the Bruins did again last night.
The Sabres dominated much of the first 16 minutes of the opening period when defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen went for an ill-advised pinch with the best line in the league on the ice for Boston. Perennial Selke candidate and four time winner for the best two-way forward in the league, Patrice Bergeron, won the race and sent the puck up to Brad Marchand for a 2-on-1 break. Marchand, who has the fourth-most points in the league (389) since 2015-16, fed a perfect cross-ice pass over sprawling Sabres d-man Jake McCabe to David Pastrnak who proceeded to pot his league-leading 29th goal of the season into a wide open net.
It's safe to say, and everyone from Ristolainen to head coach Ralph Krueger to even a novice fan would agree, that's it's pretty important to know who your up against at any given point in your shift. The cool part about it is that Ristolainen reciprocated that event with a 2-on-1 goal of his own just over six minutes into the second period. The big defenseman joined the rush and snapped a cross-ice feed from Sam Reinhart which trickled through Bruins goalie Tuuka Rask and was knocked over the line by Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara.
The Sabres had killed off a penalty just :15 seconds into the second period to keep it a 1-0 game and killed off two more after Ristolainen tied the score. But you can't keep giving the Bruins potent powerplay more opportunities and that's exactly what happened when Johan Larsson got called for two minor penalties on one Bruins possession.
Larsson, who had just come back from injury and who'd helped Ristolianen's goal by nudging Chara into helping the shot cross the line, took an ill-advised tripping penalty just 1:23 into the third period then complicated matters by taking another penalty (hooking) with Rask pulled in favor of the extra attacker. It's a rarity when you see a second penalty called on the offending team in a 6-on-5 situation but it was what it was and Larsson was off to the box for consecutive minor's.
It didn't take Boston long as Jake DeBrusk redirected a puck past Buffalo goalie Linus Ullmark 1:14 into the first penalty to make it 2-1. Just :18 seconds later DeBrusk would strike again as his shot from along the wall near the goal line snuck through Ullmark. It was a shot that had to be stopped and a mental breakdown that can't happen.
Even with that terrible start to the third period, the Sabres clawed their way back into it as Curtis Lazar pushed a rebound through just over two minutes later. Buffalo went 6-on-5 with a delayed Boston penalty and Ristolainen's shot on net dropped in front of Rask. Three Sabres were in the blue paint and Lazar was able to move the puck across the line to make the score 3-2.
But that would be it.
Three mistakes, three goals against and another loss for a Sabres team that's 9-15-6 since starting the season 8-1-1.
For as bad as that record is, the Sabres really haven't been playing poor hockey and last night was a good example. Buffalo played their game while playing with pace an getting in on the forecheck. They outshot the Bruins 26-22 and outchanced them 15-13 including 5-4 in high danger chances. However, the difference between the upper echelon of the league and a middle of the road team like Buffalo is taking advantage of the opposition's mistakes. Boston does that consistently, the Sabres do not.
Of note, the Bruins were without defensemen Charley McAvoy and Torey Krug for the game last night.
Buffalo's line combos to start last night sans Jeff Skinner who is out 3-4 weeks with an upper body injury:
Olofsson - Eichel - Okposo
Johansson- Larsson - Reinhart
Girgensons - Lazar - Rodrigues
Vesey - Asplund - Sheary
and the d-pairings
McCabe - Ristolainen
Dahlin - Miller
Montour - Jokiharju
The Sabres announced this morning that they've signed rugged forward Dalton Smith to an NHL contract. The 27 yr. old was a 2010 second-round pick of Columbus who's been plying his trade in the AHL for seven of the last eight seasons with 50 points (25+25) in 319 AHL games for five different franchises. He spent the 2016-17 season in the ECHL and the following seasons with the Rochester Americans.
With that signing the Sabres have now used 45 of their allotted 50 NHL contracts.