MONTREAL -- With the All-Star break over, the Buffalo Sabres returned to game action and learned a hard lesson.
There's still a lot of work to do.
January had glimpses of what the Sabres could be. They averaged 3.23 goals per game in the month. They went 7-5-1. They won three straight games, in overtime. They believed they were still part of the playoff race.
And while the math still has the playoffs as a possibility, Tuesday's 5-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens in Bell Centre showed the Sabres have a long way to go to competing with the best of the NHL when it matters most.
The story line of the loss was in the giveaway column.
The Sabres had 18 official giveaways but in general were sloppy with the puck, lax with passes and unable to make good reads while backing up teammates. It added up to spotting the Canadiens a 5-0 lead before the Sabres scored a pair of late goals to make the final look closer than the actual contest was.
"It’s disappointing how sloppy we came out, how we had no support for each other and so we in turn have a lot of turnovers and they took advantage of that," Sabres captain Brian Gionta said. "They’re a good team off the rush and we got killed by that.
"We never gave ourselves a chance. We weren’t moving our feet. We weren’t supporting each other. Too many turnovers. Not making the right reads. A lot went on."
Montreal took a 1-0 lead in the first and the Habs and Sabres traded chances for the first 25 minutes. Gionta called the first period "OK" for the Sabres and the team certainly had opportunities to get on the board, including a breakaway by Evander Kane in the first and back-to-back chances in front of Montreal netminder Carey Price by Ryan O'Reilly and Jack Eichel early in the second.
"We had opportunities," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "It wasn’t as if it was 19 chances to zero. We had plenty of opportunities but we played into their speed game. They play a fast game and we handed them the puck and they capitalized on a lot of the chances they had."
Sure, the Canadiens have speed. They play a speed game. It's one of the reasons why the Habs are on top of the Atlantic Division standings with 67 points and a plus-28 goal differential.
But the Habs looked lightning fast against the Sabres because, well, the Sabres kept giving them the puck.
"They look faster when we’re turning the puck over and we’re not moving our feet," Gionta said. "We allowed them to get to their game."
"It was turnovers feeding their speed," Eichel said. "I mean a team like that you can’t turn the puck over. You think about the goals they got and opportunities they had, it was all from us giving them the puck in good positions to make plays. When you do that against a creative, fast team like the Canadiens they're going to make us pay and they made us pay."
With the loss, the Sabres remain roaming around the basement of the Eastern Conference with 49 points.
So just when the Sabres look to be taking a step forward, they shuffle two back. Although the team isn't equating a disappointing outing with the ship moving backward.
"It’s one game," Eichel said. "It’s a tough one but what are you going to do about it now? We have practice tomorrow and play another game on Thursday. I think we put it behind us. We obviously know we didn’t play well. You’re not going to change the game now. You’re not going to change the outcome. I think it will be important for us just to go back to the drawing board, forget about this one, put it behind us. We know the way we have to play as a team to be successful. We didn’t do it tonight and that’s why we got spanked."