EDMONTON, Alberta -- The stat sheet told the story of a pretty even game. The numbers didn't tell the right tale.
The opener of the Buffalo Sabres' Western Canada roadie was a sloppy stinker for a good 30 minutes Sunday in Rexall Place. The Sabres got worked by the speedy Edmonton Oilers in the defensive zone and fumbled away their offensive attack by turning the puck over with impunity in a disappointing 4-2 defeat.
The Sabres had a 34-28 advantage in shots on goal, including a 16-6 bulge in the third period. They had six more shot attempts (56-50), the same number of hits (25) and only a slight disadvantage in faceoffs won (39-33).
Don't let the numbers fool you. When the Sabres weren't giving the puck away, they were just flat-out beaten to it. And their defense spent much of the net backing in far too much.
Voices all over the dressing room agreed this was not an acceptable performance. "We were just turning too many pucks over. We were feeding their transition," said center Jack Eichel, who opened the scoring with his ninth goal of the season on a first-period backhand. "A lot of times it comes down to making plays and we didn't make them. Forwards weren't supporting the 'D' well enough. We missed a lot of passes that were easy that we should make. Just a lot of lapses." The Sabres knew Edmonton would try to play a breakneck game against them. Coach Dan Bylsma spoke sternly about it during his pregame briefing with reporters but his team wasn't able to handle it. Especially the line of Leon Draisaitl, Taylor Hall and Teddy Purcell. Hall and Purcell each scored in the first period as Edmonton built a 3-1 lead and the Sabres never recovered. "Pretty much for the first 30 minutes of the game, Edmonton did a great job of putting every puck behind us, putting a lot of pressure on us with their speed and forced us in a lot of areas by the way they executed," said Bylsma. "Pretty much every opportunity they got was a result of it."
"We have to be better, especially on the road," added center Ryan O'Reilly. "We have to establish that game, that north-south play, that simple play early. They were just aggressive. They were all over us, put every puck deep and skated on us. We weren't quick enough with the puck, with our decisions and it ate us up."
Some of the Sabres' worst decisions with the puck came on the power play. Buffalo went 1 for 4 with the man-advantage, an O'Reilly goal at 13:22 of the second period that pulled the Sabres within 3-2, but also gave up a trio of 2-on-1 breaks. Only good work by goaltender Chad Johnson prevented a short-handed goal that seemed on the brink of coming all night.
"It wasn't a good night for us on the PP," O'Reilly said. "Whether it was being lazy, not putting in the work, we have to go out there and use that opportunity to outwork them and we'll gain our opportunitites. It was frustrating. We have to be better. "
"Our execution, passing, receiving," Bylsma said. "All those plays were passing plays that we turned over, we didn't connect on and it led to them."
It was one of Eichel's roughest nights of the season in terms of the physical pounding he endured. He took a puck up high in the first period, was clipped by a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins high stick in the second that gave the Sabres a power play and then was felled by a hard elbow from Edmonton defenseman and former Sabre Andrej Sekera in the third. Eichel appeared dazed after that blow and skated immediately to the bench but did not miss a shift.
"It's hockey, a fast game," Eichel said sheepishly. "You get your bell rung, it's part of the game. A fast, physical game. I kind of put myself in a bad position reaching and he caught me a little bit high. Part of the game. I'm fine."
"They played well and hard tonight," Bylsma said of the Oilers. "They played well in a lot of areas and played hard on Jack."