PITTSBURGH – The Sabres were in disbelief when the Penguins tied the game. A few players backed up to their net just so they could get a better view of the replay on the scoreboard.
When Pittsburgh scored the winning goal just 50 seconds later, no one was in disbelief. The players put their heads down at the bench or stared at the ice.
In a season full of gut punches, why wouldn’t there be another one?
“Same thing happened last year in this building, and the same thing’s happened a few times in the last few weeks just about blowing leads,” center Jack Eichel said. “That’s why we find ourselves out of the playoffs.”
There are a multiple reasons Buffalo is out of the playoffs, but Sunday's 4-3 loss to the Penguins in PPG Paints Arena showed off the big culprit. The Sabres can’t hold off counterpunches.
“An unlucky bounce happens, then we have a breakdown,” defenseman Jake McCabe said. “Just like that we lose the game. It’s come to a point where it’s just a loss for words really.”
Just like last their visit last March, the Sabres opened a 3-0 first-period lead against the favored Penguins. Last season, Pittsburgh rallied for four goals in the second period and won, 5-4, in a shootout. This time, the Sabres still held a 3-2 lead after 40 minutes.
“It’s 3-2 into the third period, and if you tell us that before the game that that’s what our situation’s going to be, we’ll take that every single time,” McCabe said. “We just couldn’t close it out.”
For the third time in five games, the Sabres blew a third-period lead. For the second time, they failed to get a point.
“We need to learn how to settle in,” captain Brian Gionta said. “We get a goal scored against, even that tying goal, we need to settle back down and find ourselves, not allow that momentum to continue to shift their way. It did for the win.”
The Sabres fell to 16-2-5 when leading after two periods. That .696 winning percentage ranks 27th in the NHL. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, improved to a league-best 8-13-3 when trailing after 40 minutes.
“We’ve had a few of these lately,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said, “and each one’s a bigger blow to where we’re at in the standings and what we need to do to get points.”
The Sabres, who fell to 1-4-2 in their last seven games, blew a three-goal lead for the second time this season. Philadelphia, which visits Buffalo on Tuesday, erased a 3-0 deficit for a 4-3 shootout win in October.
“We knew they were going to have a push,” McCabe said. “Obviously, you don’t want them to have a push. We tried to weather the storm.”
The Sabres held on for more than 16 minutes of the third period, even killing two penalties. But a floater from the point bounced off Buffalo defenseman Zach Bogosian and off the upraised stick of Jake Guentzel to tie the game with 3:46 to go.
The players and officials looked at the replay to see if Guentzel deflected the puck with a high-stick, but the video review was inconclusive. The goal stood.
With the sellout crowd still roaring, Pittsburgh’s Conor Sheary got open for a tap-in. In under a minute, the Sabres’ upset hopes got dashed.
“They definitely caught a lucky break there, but that’s what you see with good teams,” Buffalo goaltender Anders Nilsson said. “They find a way to get those lucky goals. They played good. They were really pushing us back in the second period and in the third. Usually, when you stay in your end for too long, you get a bad break like that.”
It made for another somber dressing room. Despite building a three-goal lead in 18 minutes and outshooting the Penguins, 49-45, the Sabres had absolutely nothing to show for it.
“It’s the tale of every game we’ve played in the last few, so nothing changes,” Eichel said. “We blew another lead.”