Cody Hodgson didn’t want to hear it. Yes, the referee made a mistake. No, that’s not what cost the Sabres their first victory.
“We’re not going to make excuses, especially at this point of the season,” Hodgson said after a 3-2 overtime loss to Tampa Bay that featured an officiating error that indirectly impacted the outcome. “That’s tough, but at the same time this game was winnable. We had enough chances, power plays after that, chances in the slot, tap-ins that we missed that could put the game away. We can’t just rely on one call.”
The call may not have decided the game Tuesday, but it did change it.
Thomas Vanek thought he gave Buffalo a 3-1, third-period lead as the First Niagara Center fans cheered his apparent goal. Elation turned to sullen disbelief for Vanek in a manner of seconds, shocking the Sabres and getting the crowd of 18,243 ornery.
While chasing the puck behind the Tampa net, Vanek got his stick up on defenseman Matt Carle. Play continued as Steve Ott collected the puck in the corner and fed Jamie McBain at the point. Vanek deflected the defenseman’s slap shot into the net.
It was only then that referee Paul Devorski blew the whistle to penalize Vanek for high-sticking – a sound that is supposed to come as soon as the penalized team touches the puck.
“The referee did not see Sabres forward Steve Ott touch the puck, which then rebounded to Jamie McBain whose shot entered the net simultaneous with the referee blowing his whistle,” the NHL said in a statement. “The net result was the correct call – no goal, penalty to Buffalo.”
The Sabres were shocked to see Vanek head to the box instead of the score sheet.
“I didn’t even know we had a penalty,” Vanek said. “I tipped it in, and the next thing I know he’s waving it off and pointing at me that I got two minutes. It was a little confusing, especially at that time to make it 3-1. That’s what we needed.”
Vanek sat down with 14:39 remaining, and he remained motionless when Tampa scored 21 seconds later to tie the game.
“From 3-1 to 2-2, it’s a big change,” Vanek said.
Each team missed chances to win in regulation, the Sabres failing to find the net and goaltender Jhonas Enroth preventing Tampa from reaching his again – until the extra session.
Lightning defenseman Eric Brewer fanned on a point-blank shot, but Alex Killorn picked up the puck, skated around the mass in front and deposited a backhand with 1:50 gone in overtime.
Despite the loss, the Sabres still managed to accomplish a few previously unattainable feats. They moved to 0-3-1 to get their first point. They took their first leads of the season, scored their first power-play goals and doubled their offensive output from the opening three games.
Hodgson, all alone at the side of the net, calmly lifted the puck over goalie Ben Bishop, who was suddenly bathed in blue and gold spotlights with 8:51 left in the second. The goal ended the Sabres’ season-opening slide on the power play on the 14th try.
Tampa tied the game two minutes later as Tyler Johnson ripped a shot into the top corner over a crouched Enroth, but the Sabres’ power play answered. After assisting on the opening goal, McBain claimed the second one for himself with 1:26 to go in the middle period.
Enroth, starting again in place of Ryan Miller (groin), finished with 31 saves. Buffalo tested Bishop only 23 times, and coach Ron Rolston hopes to see more shots Thursday against Columbus.
“Tampa Bay played really well all game,” Enroth said. “They won the shots and they probably felt like they played better than us. Both teams battled hard.”