The Buffalo Sabres haven't been terrible by any means in recent weeks, but they also haven't been themselves. Things are getting tighter for the highest-scoring team in the NHL. Opposing teams received the message. Skate with the Sabres, and suffer the consequences. Get into a run-and-gun, and dig your own grave.
Buffalo was 6-2-1 in its previous nine games while waiting for an opponent daring enough, or perhaps dumb enough, to submit to its style. The struggling Ottawa Senators confirmed last season they can wheel with anyone. And they had little to lose Saturday night by returning to their familiar old ways.
So why not go twirl for twirl with the Sabres?
The result before a sellout crowd in HSBC Arena was yet another Senators' victory over the Sabres. Ottawa matched Buffalo's speed, enjoyed its best game in weeks and left town with a 3-1 victory. The Sabres have lost only six games all season, including three of four meetings with the Senators.
"I don't like losing to them," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "It gives them confidence. It's something we have to rectify as a team."
Jason Spezza scored two goals and helped set up Dany Heatley for another for the Senators. Ottawa limped into town with a 1-4 record in their previous five games, including a 6-0 loss against Nashville. It had been outscored, 23-8, in their last five games overall, and 21-6 in their last four losses.
It didn't matter Saturday.
Spezza gave Ottawa a 3-1 lead from the bottom of the left circle in the third period, when the Sens had a two-man advantage, and the Sabres were all but cooked. It could have been worse. Spezza was stopped on a penalty shot in the third period after Teppo Numminen hooked him on a breakaway.
The Senators effectively shut down the passing lanes, converted their chances and outplayed the Sabres on special teams. Ottawa offered yet another reminder that it could be around come playoff time, hardly comforting for the Sabres given what's happened so far this season.
"They've been going at such a high clip for a while, they're due for games where maybe the other team outworked them," Senators coach Bryan Murray said. "I thought we did for the most part tonight."
The Sabres had several scoring chances throughout the game, but they either had problems finding the net or failed to beat Ray Emery. Jochen Hecht gave Buffalo its only goal with 5:49 left in the second period when he tipped a rising slap shot from Brian Campbell past Emery and into the top corner.
Hecht had a scoring chance earlier in the period when he had Emery out of position and the short side open. His shot missed the net and slipped through the far side of the crease.
Chris Drury was in a similar position on the power play later, but his wrist shot to the short side rang off the post.
"I wish I could have done a little bit more out there," Hecht said. "I had an empty net out there, too, and it's a different game if I put it in. They were ready. They took advantage of the chances we handed them, and we couldn't bear down on ours."
Emery opened the season as the backup to Martin Gerber but has been making a case to be the No. 1 goaltender.
His best effort Saturday was a diving save when Derek Roy tried firing home a loose rebound after Jason Pominville's booming slapper off the wing.
Hecht scored on the power play, which is 5 for 56 going into Tuesday's home game against Montreal. The Sabres had a two-man advantage for 49 seconds in the second period and didn't record a shot. Spezza's second goal came with the Senators had a five-on-three in the third period. Buffalo outshot Ottawa, 36-29.
"The puck was bouncing tonight, and it seemed like it was bouncing their way," Roy said. "They're a good team and played us hard. We have to respond the next time we play them."
Heatley opened the scoring when he helped a tricking puck across the goal line, concluding a play that started with a turnover in the Buffalo zone. Spezza found Andrej Meszaros at the point, and the defenseman's slap shot bounced off Thomas Vanek and squirted through Miller's pads. Heatley easily tapped the puck into an open net.
Spezza scored on the power play moments after Nathan Paetsch was sent to the box for holding. Heatley gained control behind the net, and Tom Preissing sent a quick pass to Spezza standing alone in the slot. Spezza snapped a shot through Miller's legs, and the Sabres were in trouble.
"They have a lot of skilled players and a lot of dangerous players that can make things happen," Pominville said. "They got the momentum, and we weren't able to get it back."