What is it about expansion opponents that makes the Buffalo Sabres look like they've been sniffing ether?
The Sabres played another lackluster home game against another expansion opponent Friday night, losing, 3-1, to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Buffalo looked better Friday than it did in its season-opening loss to the Atlanta Thrashers, or its 3-3 tie Tuesday with the Nashville Predators. But the Blue Jackets still managed to make the Sabres appear out of sorts before 18,960 fans, the first sellout crowd of the season in HSBC Arena.
Maybe Columbus just wanted it -- indeed, needed it -- more. The Blue Jackets came into the game winless at 0-2-4 and played with the passion, if not always the discipline, of a team on a mission. It seemed only fitting that the man to complete that mission with the game-winning goal was Geoff Sanderson, who was left unprotected by the Sabres and selected by Columbus in the 2000 expansion draft.
"It's good any time you get a game-winner like that, especially when your team's a little bit down," Sanderson said. "I'm not going to say it's not special to get it against your old team, but we're just happy we got that first win."
On the other side of the ice, the Sabres couldn't generate much momentum. They didn't look indifferent Friday, the way they had against Nashville earlier in the week, but nothing seemed to be clicking for the home team.
"That was probably one of the better games we've played against one of those teams that we're supposed to beat," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "I think these teams, if you don't go ahead early and if you don't take advantage of your chances, you're in for a tough night."
And the Sabres did have their chances. They outshot Columbus, 30-17, including a 14-3 advantage in a second period that included 10 blocked Sabres shots. But none of Buffalo's shots got by Blue Jackets goalie Ron Tugnutt, who played magnificently in his first game after sitting out a week with a neck strain.
Sabres goalie Martin Biron played a solid game but was victimized by a pair of Columbus odd-man rushes. The first, a two-on-one with six minutes left in the opening period, gave the Blue Jackets a 1-0 lead.
Columbus wingers Grant Marshall and Serge Aubin took off up ice with only Buffalo defenseman Dmitri Kalinin, playing his first game after a two-game benching, in position to cover them. Instead of taking Aubin out of the play, Kalinin opted to shadow the puck carrier. While Biron tried to track the puck, Marshall used Kalinin as a screen and passed through the slot to Aubin, who buried a quick shot. Biron refused to blame Kalinin for the goal.
"I think that's a great play for a defenseman," Biron said. "I should have read it faster, that when (Marshall) brought it back to his forehand he had only one choice, and that was to go across to Aubin. Maybe I could have read that a little faster and gotten right on Aubin before he even got the puck."
Columbus nursed the 1-0 lead through a second period in which the Sabres had at least five quality scoring chances. Tugnutt was always there to neutralize them. Some of Buffalo's most maddening missed opportunities came during a four-minute power play that resulted when Blue Jackets winger Kevin Dineen intentionally shoved the butt-end of his stick into Slava Kozlov's nose during a stoppage in play. Kozlov returned to play on the fruitless power play, but Ruff indicated after the game that he would address the incident with the league.
Things finally picked up for the Sabres two minutes into the third, when Maxim Afinogenov tied the score on a great solo effort. After Jay McKee cleared the puck from the zone, Afinogenov raced across ice to beat a Blue Jacket to the loose puck. He carried it through the neutral zone and over the blue line, evaded Columbus defenseman Deron Quint and took a shot from the left faceoff circle, beating Tugnutt on the glove side.
But the Sabres would get nothing more, and nine minutes later Sanderson scored the go-ahead goal after breaking in alone on Biron. The goalie made the initial save on Sanderson's low shot, but Biron couldn't keep the puck from trickling through his pads and into the net. Tyler Wright capped the Blue Jackets' victory, scoring an empty-net goal with less than a minute remaining.