The Sabres lost to the Sharks, 2-1, in overtime at the First Niagara Center on Saturday night. Going into the game, Sabres fans had every reason to be excited to see their team go over the .500 mark for the first time in years.
It had taken fifteen years for the visiting San Jose Sharks to post a win in Buffalo, a 5-0 victory on Dec 2, 2005. They hadn’t won a second game in the last decade. The Sharks were playing on consecutive nights after beating the Wings, 3-2, at Joe Louis Arena on Friday. And Sharks’ #1 goalie, Martin Jones, was starting his first back-to-back games of the season. They should have been ripe for the picking.
From the home side, the Sabres had gone 5-1 over their last six, and had just completed a Florida sweep with some pinache. On nationally broadcast television, Jack Eichel had just played his best professional game. Team defense metrics have been improving. And the duo of Linus Ullmark and Chad Johnson have provided above average goaltending. Coming off of a rest day, the Sabres should have had fresh legs.
Instead, it seemed that the visiting Sharks had more energy and hunger. They played a quality keep-it-simple road game that deserved—and produced—a win. The Sabres looked lethargic and unstructured.
In the offensive zone, the Sabres had difficulty with puck battles on the boards and the forecheck rarely challenged the Sharks’ first pass clearing attempts. The only sustained pressure came from a few shifts from the Moulson-O’Reilly-Gionta line.
Strong first shot saves from Martin Jones (8-5) were bolstered by a collapsing defense that had the Sabres unable to connect while scrambling for rebound chances. All too often, the Sabres’ puck carrier had only stationary targets to hit for passes. Mustering just two shots on a lengthy two-man advantage in the first period was a bad omen for the rest of the game.
Ryan O’Reilly’s third period goal was emblematic of the Sabres offense—an individual effort. He took a deflected pass from a handcuffed Paul Martin, advanced to the faceoff circle to the left of Jones, and labeled a slapshot into the top shelf. O’Reilly was the offensive bright spot.
With Robin Lehner still injured, the Sabres ask the same that every team asks of its backups: make enough saves to give the team a chance to win. Ullmark has responded. Tonight, it was Chad Johnson’s turn. He made 30 saves on 32 shots. Ristolainen has three goals and three assists in his last four games.
Pysyk and McCabe played well, as did Franson. Carlo Colaiacovo, however, demonstrated why he had been in the press box for the previous game. The defense has to continue moving their feet and keeping both hands on their sticks to be successful. On the whole, together, the defense played well and limited shots, chances and, as a result, goals.
While the Sabres have shown flashes of the future, a record over .500 is clearly not yet in the cards. The Sabres are not going to be vanquishing Stanly Cup contenders for now, but when mediocre teams come to play their second game in two nights, the fans should-and do-expect more.
Fans will need to see more determination, stronger effort, sharper passes and smarter positioning. More than that, Coach Bylsma will have to find a way to get the individual players to play together and work as a team. When we see these things happen, we’ll see a winning record.