COLUMBUS – The result remains the same.
Once again, the Buffalo Sabres did a lot of things right. Their young guns, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, paired with veteran Matt Moulson, played like a top line with good, quick movement and an aggressive pursuit of the puck which created one goal and a multitude of other opportunities.
The fourth line was solid, scoring the first goal of the game, and the first goal by an opponent in Nationwide Arena in 182 minutes and 50 seconds.
Robin Lehner made impressive saves, holding off a hard-charging offense from the Columbus Blue Jackets while the Sabres' defensemen got on the board offensively with goals from Josh Gorges and Rasmus Ristolainen.
But the result was the same – a mistake in the final five minutes cost the Sabres the game-winning goal in a 4-3 loss to the Blue Jackets. It was the third straight loss for the Sabres, who have won only once in their last nine games.
A good game with a bad result. It’s been one of the tunes the Sabres know by heart this season. And with 14 games left, the time for taking positives out of losses is over.
“The time for learning lessons I think is past us,” said Sabres defenseman Josh Gorges, who scored his first goal of the season in the second period. “It’s now about winning games. That’s all that matters. That’s all that should matter. I said this after last game, it doesn’t matter if you play an ugly game. You get two points. That’s the job. It doesn’t matter if you play a good game and fall up short, you didn’t get the job done. Tonight was that way.”
The Sabres were in the game for the entire 60 minutes, something that hasn’t been a regular occurrence. They opened the scoring at 2:50 when Evan Rodrigues capitalized on a turnover and worked a give-and-go with Nic Deslauriers. Rodrigues scored his third goal of the season, beating Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who entered the game with three consecutive shutouts.
The Blue Jackets responded and took a 2-1 lead by the end of the first. Buffalo battled back, with Gorges' goal tying the game in the second.
Columbus took another lead. Buffalo battled back. It was a 3-3 game thanks to a bullet from Rasmus Ristolainen. But the Sabres couldn’t close out the game.
“It’s very frustrating, I think tonight probably more so than our last four or five,” Gorges said. “Did a lot of good things. Competed hard. That’s a hard-working team on the other side and we matched it. And that’s what we want. We want to have that intensity. It’s tough to lose a game like that no question.”
“I’m not saying any one stings more than another one,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “This is one you feel like, we’re in this game, we come back in this game. We’re tooth and nail with this team and you, I think, just the nature of the goals they got, how they got the goal at the end of the game is what stings the most.”
The game-winner came with 5:07 left in regulation. Ryan O’Reilly had won the faceoff to the right of Lehner but Cody Franson could not take control of the puck to clear the zone. Boone Jenner picked it up, rushed in on Lehner and tucked a backhand around the sprawling Sabres goaltender.
O’Reilly “did a good job winning the draw,” Franson said. “I just started going a little early thinking the puck was going to go a little farther to the inside. I handcuffed myself and couldn’t get a handle on it. It just is what it is.”
It certainly wasn’t the only bad note of the night as the Sabres' penalty kill came up short. The Blue Jackets entered the game in a 3-for-39 funk on the power play since Jan. 22 but went 2 for 3 with the man-advantage against the Sabres. Nick Foligno’s goal gave Columbus a 2-1 lead in the first while Sam Gagner’s gave them a 3-2 lead in the second.
“They’ve got a good power play,” Franson said. “They move it around quick. They don’t really waste any time out there. They move it around and it’s efficient and that makes it tough to kill. Sometimes you’ve got to tip your cap a little bit. They made some pretty good plays to get the goals they got.”
Those were pretty plays, but the overall play of the Blue Jackets wasn’t exactly up to their desired standard.
While the Blue Jackets have won four straight at home and are 7-2-1 in their last 10, the bright spot for head coach John Tortorella was that his team did not play its best but found a way to win.
“It’s good to find a way to win when you’re not on your game,” Tortorella said. “I think it’s a good sign when you know, and the players certainly know, they weren’t that good.”