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Punished despite good deeds Sabres vs. Senators: Sabres' improved effort, defense and goaltending go unrewarded

The first step to recover from Saturday's debacle in Pittsburgh that thrust the Buffalo Sabres and their fans into crisis mode was to get more effort, tighter defense and better goaltending Tuesday in Scotiabank Place.

And while the injury-depleted Sabres did that for the most part, it still wasn't nearly enough.

Buffalo gave up three goals in the final 12 minutes, including two by Ottawa winger Erik Condra, and fell to the Senators, 4-1, before a crowd of 18,474.

The loss knocked the Sabres out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference for the first time this season, as they dropped from eighth place to 10th after wins by the Senators and Washington Capitals on Tuesday. The Sabres have their final pre-Christmas game Thursday in Toronto.

The biggest item on the plus side was the much better showing of embattled goaltender Ryan Miller, who stopped 35 of 38 shots he faced and got little help from his defense on the three goals he gave up.

It was a far cry from the five goals on 15 shots and double yanking Miller endured in Saturday's 8-3 fiasco, which included some postgame sniping at him by owner Terry Pegula.

Miller stopped a Chris Neil breakaway but Zack Smith potted a rebound on the first Ottawa goal, and Condra's game-winner at 7:59 of the third came after Miller stopped a shot by Kyle Turris.

"I felt more like myself. It's nice to stay in the game," Miller said with a pained smile. "I wanted to be there for the guys and I felt better. I gave them a chance. I felt like it was a good step forward for myself."

"I thought Ryan looked sharp," coach Lindy Ruff said. "He's put a lot of work into the last couple days."

The Senators had a 39-23 edge in shots on goal, a figure bloated by several shots late that created a 16-7 edge in the third period. Miller swallowed most chances with good positioning, including a spectacular left pad save on Kaspars Daugavins with the score locked at 1-1 in the final two minutes of the second period.

Playing with five players who opened the season in Rochester in their lineup -- and with wingers Marcus Foligno and Derek Whitmore making their NHL debuts after getting called up Monday -- the Sabres lost simply because of turnovers that led to Ottawa goals and a pop-gun offense that saw their forwards manage just 14 shots on goal. Leading scorer Thomas Vanek had none.

On Condra's winner, Luke Adam turned the puck over at the Ottawa line and Paul Szczechura was stripped of it a few seconds later at the Buffalo line by Turris, playing his first game with the Senators after a trade from Phoenix.

Condra passed to Turris, whose shot was stopped by Miller, but Turris pushed the rebound to the goalie's right and Condra got to the puck ahead of Mike Weber and popped it home.

"We were pretty good maintaining the puck for a pretty good part of the game," Ruff said. "But when you make a big mistake like that, you pay for it."

Erik Karlsson added a power-play goal on a goalmouth tap-in with 2:11 left and Condra's second came into an empty net 25 seconds later.

Ottawa's Zack Smith scored in the first and Buffalo's Jordan Leopold answered that on a power play at 13:12 of the second.

Leopold got victimized twice on the Smith goal, flubbing a dump-in and then getting outmuscled to a rebound by Smith after Miller stopped the Neil breakaway.

"I fanned on it. I 'nerfed' it. It happens," Leopold said of his shoot-in. "I should have gotten it deep, gotten us a change and the goal never happens. [After Miller's save] I was backchecking and the puck ended up at my feet and I thought I had it surrounded. You've got to give him credit for getting a stick on it. Normally, 99 out of 100 times I end up getting those pucks."

Leopold got that one back on a power play at 13:12 of the second period, beating Craig Anderson with a shot from the left boards but that was the extent of the Buffalo offense.

"It's unfortunate. I thought we put a lot of work into the game," Miller said. "There was a little bit better attention to detail in most areas and it could have been one of those nights where we grind it out on the road. It just didn't end up that way."

email: mharrington@buffnews.com