In the wake of Saturday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild, you don’t have to dig too deep to find some of the most discouraging numbers in the Buffalo Sabres’ season:
A). 1-6: It’s the Sabres’ record in shootouts, second-worst in the NHL and ahead of only Carolina’s 0-3. They won their first one, Oct. 21 here vs. Toronto, and have dropped six straight.
B). 3 for 23: That’s the ugly ledger of Buffalo shooters in the skills competition.
C). 9 for 21: That the opponents’ ledger, which includes 4 for 6 in two victories over goaltender Robin Lehner.
A sellout crowd in First Niagara Center saw the latest disappointment, a four-round affair that ranks as the biggest gut-punch of the season.
For starters, coach Dan Bylsma gave the fans a chance to roar by anointing Jack Eichel to open at home for the first time. Eichel deked Devin Dubnynk to score the first shootout goal of his career in four tries – and end the Sabres’ 14-shot drought that dated to the Toronto win.
Lehner forced Mikko Koivu to shoot wide on a backhand. With a chance to put the Sabres up by two, Evander Kane was stopped by Dubnyk. Given a huge reprieve, the Wild evened the score on Charlie Coyle’s wrist shot past Lehner.
Sam Reinhart then had Dubnyk beat but the puck slithered through the goalie’s legs, hit the post and bounded away. Lehner stopped Zach Parise to send things to an extra round but Dubnyk shut down Marcus Foligno.
That left old friend Jason Pominville to break Buffalo hearts with a snap shot that gave the Wild their first shootout win in three tries. It was the Wild’s fourth straight win overall.
“It’s just frustrating with our shootout results this year,” said Eichel, who had a goal and an assist on Johan Larsson’s tally in regulation as the Sabres converted twice on a four-minute power play. “There’s a lot of skilled players on this team. We haven’t been good enough. The shootout is an opportunity to grab an extra point and I think as a group we can bear down and start to take advantage of it.”
The result was particularly tough on Kane, who failed to make up for a rough 65 minutes of head-to-head play. He sat at his locker, skates still on, for several minutes afterward pondering what happened.
Kane had 11 shot attempts in the game, with five on goal. He was stopped on a clean breakaway in overtime and had several other chances during the game, including a tap-in off a neat Eichel feed in the first period that he failed to bury.
“I take responsibility for us not winning that game,” Kane said. “I’m counted on to produce and score when I get those opportunities and I definitely didn’t do that. There’s really no excuse for that. I had chances in the first period, chances in the third period to extend the lead or win the game in overtime there and I didn’t step up.”
Kane said the breakaway and shootout were similar as he tried to shoot on Dubnyk, perhaps looking for the goalie to open the 5-hole.
“I’m just trying to hit space,” Kane said. “I saw space and I didn’t hit my spot. Usually you don’t hit your spot, you’re not going to score. There’s always space to the net and I didn’t find the net.”
“It’s weird in the 3-on-3 that you can see the play developing and the puck is at the far goal line and I know I’m getting a breakaway,” Dubnyk said. “You almost have to not come flying out and let it happen. He’s got a ton of speed so you have to match it, don’t back up too much and be as patient as I could.”
Bylsma acknowledged he felt Kane’s frustration.
“You want that guy in those spots to score goals,” Bylsma said. “He had a number of good looks, a number of opportunities to put it away in the 60 minutes and in the overtime there.”
But it didn’t happen. Reinhart looked to the rafters after his near-miss.
“Once it went by him, I was kind of hoping,” Reinhart said. “He kind of stayed with me through the whole move. I was able to squeak it by and unfortunately it hit the post.”
“I kind of thought it was in,” Bylsma said. “It went through his legs and it was going in and I was a little bit shocked to see it hit the post and not find its way back.”
The Sabres will be back at practice again Sunday, undoubtedly working on shootouts like they do just about every day.
“So many different things can happen and unfortunately it didn’t go our way today,” Reinhart said. “It’s just repetition. We practice it quite a bit. For whatever reason, it’s not translating into a game.”