The fire was there early. Some Buffalo Sabres were determined to stop the Ottawa Senators' dominance Friday, and they were eager to prove it to everyone in HSBC Arena.
Mike Grier, Paul Gaustad, Jochen Hecht and Tim Kennedy showed the passion with hits and scuffles. Patrick Kaleta trumped them all with just 2:57 off the clock, trading a dozen left-handed punches for a 12-pack of rights from Zack Smith. He exhorted the sellout crowd on his way to the box, then gave his team a five-minute power play by absorbing a boarding penalty with 15 minutes gone.
With the stage set for the Sabres' core, it snored. The power play was a mess, cut short by Tim Connolly's slashing call, and the Senators went on to a typical 4-2 victory that had members of the Blue and Gold floored.
"Our workers, the hitters did a great job for us," coach Lindy Ruff said. "I thought our special-teams players, the guys that were on that, didn't compete hard enough. I was angry with Tim. I was angry with the power play in general. That's where the lack of compete came in.
"There's plays inside the game that you won't win unless we're tougher on those plays. The [Derek] Roys, the Connollys, the [Thomas] Vaneks, those guys have got to be tougher on the puck."
The loss was nothing new. The Senators have won nine straight against Buffalo and are 25-6-4 against their rival since the lockout. But the way they lost stung the half of the team that bothered to stick around the dressing room in a culture that endorses disappearing after games.
"It's frustrating," Grier said. "It
just comes down to battles and competing, and they just did it better than us. There's no excuse for that. It was a big game, and they did all the little things that you have to do this time of year to win games.
"We tried to be in their face and take away their time and space, but it's like a war of attrition. You've got to stick with the game plan for 60 minutes. You can't try and play individual hockey and not do what the game plan is. We got away from that at times, and they just played the same way for 60 minutes.
"When it comes right down to it, they deserved to win."
Failing to pick up the momentum from Kaleta's plays and mimic his passion was costly.
"If you're not going to get emotionally involved in a game like this, you've got to tell me when the right time is," goaltender Ryan Miller said.
The loss, which snapped a four-game winning streak, prevented the Sabres from clinching a postseason berth and moved Ottawa within five points of the Northeast Division lead. Buffalo's next victory will end a two-year playoff drought, and it gets another chance tonight when the Tampa Bay Lightning visit.
"You want to win in every game you play, especially against [Ottawa]," right wing Jason Pominville said. "We're not going to lie. It's not a team we like. . . . To come up short at home is definitely disappointing."
The Senators opened the scoring with 6:42 gone. Jarkko Ruutu flipped the puck toward Miller, and Chris Kelly batted it out of the air just before it reached the goalie's glove. Kelly slid the deflection under the netminder.
The Senators' second goal came early in the second period, with Jason Spezza digging the puck out of a corner pileup and feeding Peter Regin for a point-blank laser. Shortly after Tim Kennedy cut the Sabres' deficit to one, Spezza tipped Daniel Alfredsson's power-play blast.
Miller brought the 18,690 fans to life with a pair of sparkling saves in the opening seconds of the third. Pominville brought the folks out of their seats with a goal, stealing the puck and roofing a shot just after Steve Montador's penalty expired.
Vanek followed by ripping one off the goal post on a breakaway with 10:12 left. The power play sputtered again with 2:56 left. Alfredsson ended the suspense when he was taken down in the Buffalo zone and was awarded an empty-net goal with a second left.
Said Vanek: "Obviously, we could have been better everywhere."