The message on the board inside the Buffalo Sabres' dressing room was clear long before coach Lindy Ruff grabbed the black pen and started scribbling after the game. The Sabres knew they put two points in a box, wrapped them and sealed them with a bow.
Certain aspects of their 4-3 loss to the Montreal Canadiens needed rehashing. Ruff solemnly broke down the game before a quiet dressing room. He wrote "3-1 lead" for emphasis but that really wasn't necessary. The Sabres were quiet about the details, but presumably Ruff raised the following points:
Point A: The Sabres, more than any other team, should know how to protect a 3-1 lead against anyone, much less the Canadiens, who are in last place in the Northeast Division. Buffalo had allowed the fewest goals in the league, a fact that was somehow lost on its flight from Ottawa on Saturday night.
Point B: The Sabres have had problems scoring, so when they reached three it should have been a reminder that it was more than they had scored in eight of their nine previous games. Taking high-risk chances and feathering passes through the offensive zone in the name of greed can backfire the way greed often does.
Point C: The Sabres are a better team than the Canadiens. The standings prove as much. They also were better than Columbus, Boston, Florida and Tampa Bay, four teams that beat them before the NHL All-Star break. Count the Canadiens, and the Sabres tossed 10 possible points down the proverbial drain. They are 11 points behind New Jersey, which sits in first place in the Eastern Conference, and five points out of ninth.
"We're wasting too many points," winger Rob Ray said. "We wasted two tonight. We wasted in Florida. We wasted in Tampa. We're wasting way too many. In the long run, it could come back and haunt us. It's too tight and there's too few games left to be wasting these opportunities."
The Sabres have 27 games remaining in the season, so it's down to the final third. They are 12 games through a 14-game stretch in which 11 of their opponents have sub-.500 records. They are 6-6 in the last dozen with a home-and-home series with the Thrashers starting Tuesday night in Atlanta.
"Guys better realize it's crunch time," defenseman Rhett Warrener said. "This time of year, if we have a lead in the third, it should be a guaranteed win. It should be absolute desperation. It should be shots, eat pucks, make sure (the puck) is out, make sure we're back and getting the job done. When it gets this late in the season and you're not doing that, you better start messaging everybody's head."
The Sabres could actually be in worse position after flirting with danger. They blew leads against the New York Islanders and Ottawa in their previous two games before Maxim Afinogenov twice rescued them with overtime goals. It was the first time since OT was implemented in 1983 that the same player won consecutive games in the extra session.
Afinogenov couldn't save the Sabres from themselves in this one.
They had a 3-1 lead when Dave Andreychuk took an elbowing penalty, resulting in Stephane Robidas' power-play goal in the second period. They had a 3-2 lead with less than nine minutes remaining in the third when Alexei Zhitnik and rookie Dmitri Kalinin were caught chasing the puck behind the net, leaving Patrick Poulin alone enough to retrieve his own rebound and beat a helpless Dominik Hasek.
The Sabres were still looking for a tie and another chance in overtime when they were late getting back defensively, leaving Poulin alone for the winner with 4:46 left on a shot Hasek should have stopped. In the first period, it was Jason Woolley's giveaway that led to Oleg Petrov's slapper that found a space between Hasek's pads.
"Sometimes, it takes that one (loss) to straighten you right out," Woolley said. "There's no excuse why this shouldn't be the one that does it. It's embarrassing to give up a 3-1 lead at home and a 3-2 lead with (nine) minutes left. It's all about defense. It's not about trying to get that next goal."
Doug Gilmour tied Bryan Trottier for 12th all-time with 901 assists and Sabres legend Gilbert Perreault for 19th all-time with 1,326 points. The accomplishments and Buffalo's strong effort in a nine-minute stretch in the second period were lost in defeat.
Kalinin slipped in from the blue line and flicked a shot through a maze of players just outside the net. Andreychuk scored less than three minutes later off a pass from Gilmour. Vaclav Varada scored less than three minutes after Andreychuk when he backhanded a shot from the left circle.
The Sabres thought they had secured a 3-1 lead en route to a fourth straight victory. It all slipped away as easily as A, B, C.
"It's frustrating," Ruff said. "We took a couple steps back before the break and three giant steps forward again. Our goal is to win the division. It's not to make the playoffs."
The Sabres Hall of Fame committee has named defensemen Jerry Korab and Mike Ramsey and scout Mike Racicot to its class of 2001. Korab played nine seasons over two stints with the Sabres in the 1970s and '80s. Ramsey joined the Sabres after winning Olympic gold for the 1980 U.S. team and played 14 seasons in Buffalo. The former captain served as an assistant coach for three seasons before leaving last summer. Racicot has been with the Sabres since their inception in 1970 and is the only member of the hockey department with the team for all 31 seasons.