BOSTON – What is it about TD Garden? The Curse of Cam Neely? The Milan Lucic Effect? Whatever it is, bad things keep happening when the Buffalo Sabres visit Causeway Street.
With captain Brian Gionta felled by a vicious hit by Boston defenseman Matt Bartkowski and Marcus Foligno sidelined by a hand injury in an ensuing fight, the Sabres were forced to go down to three forward lines for the final 49 minutes Sunday night.
Ravaged by illness and injury and now missing nine players – yes, nine – the Sabres still nearly registered a signature victory to their season.
They were somehow 91 seconds from a win but Boston’s Dougie Hamilton scored the tying goal with 1:31 left and the Bruins’ net empty. Then Loui Eriksson beat Jhonas Enroth at 2:14 of overtime to hand the Sabres a 4-3 dagger-to-the-heart defeat.
Eriksson took a neat touch pass from Lucic and got just ahead of an onrushing Josh Gorges to beat Enroth with a quick snapshot. It dropped the Sabres to 0-2-1 in the last three games.
The last time the Sabres were here was on April 11 in last season’s penultimate game. It was a 4-1 loss that saw five players injured, topped by goaltender Matt Hackett’s serious knee injury from which he has yet to recover.
There was more trouble for Buffalo on Sunday in a game that almost certainly will get the attention of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.
The night’s signature play came with 5:52 left in the first period. Foligno was attempting a pass up the middle and the 5-foot-7 Gionta stretched for it just inside the Buffalo zone but was hit high by the 6-foot-1 Bartkowski.
Bartkowski’s shoulder seemed to contact Gionta’s shoulder and head before his elbow followed through on the hit. Gionta cartwheeled through the air and landed face-first on the ice, appearing to suffer a cut before skating off the ice for good under his own power.
“I was a little ahead of him so I kind of saw him just hit the ice,” winger Brian Flynn said of Gionta. “I knew it must have been bad. I got back to the bench and guys said the hit was a little early and to the head.”
Coach Ted Nolan had no update on Gionta other than to say he was “a little shaken up.” But Nolan acknowledged Foligno is going to be out a while after suffering a major hand injury while battling Bartkowski.
“The head hits are dangerous hits,” Nolan said. “We’ll let the league look at that and make the correct call.”
Foligno saw the entire play and immediately engaged Bartkowski, slamming his gloves down to the ice and rifling the Boston defenseman with a series of blows.
“Just one of those freak accidents that happen when you fight,” Nolan said. “You’re throwing punches at helmets. Your hands are out there.”
“Marcus was unbelievable,” said Zemgus Girgensons. “Great job by him. He’s a great teammate and I know he would have done that for anybody on this team.”
Bartkowski, who was not made available for comment, received an interference major for the hit, a fighting major and a game misconduct. Foligno got a minor for instigating, a fighting major and a misconduct. When he didn’t return to his seat in the penalty box for the second period, the Sabres confirmed his injury.
“It’s just tough to see two guys go out on one play like that,” Flynn said. “Both my linemates too. … But it’s a sign of a team that wants to go out every night and compete for each other.”
One of the Sabres’ gutsiest efforts of the season came on the second half of a back-to-back with illness apparently ravaging the locker room.
The litany of Buffalo woes is long from this one. Enroth got the news he was playing two hours before the game because Michal Neuvirth was too ill to start. Matt Moulson and Patrick Kaleta stayed home due to illness. Tyler Myers missed his first game of the season with a lower-body injury suffered Saturday against Colorado.
Tyson Strachan and Torrey Mitchell (both lower body) went on injured reserve Sunday. Mike Weber (knee) and Cody McCormick (lower body) remain out.
As for the sick bay, Nolan reaffirmed before the game the team does not think it is dealing with cases of the mumps like the ones that have afflicted several other NHL teams.
“They tell us that mumps doesn’t have symptoms like the guys are having right now,” Nolan said. “It’s flu-like symptoms.”
Buffalo got second-period goals from defensemen Andrej Meszaros, his first as a Sabre, and Rasmus Ristolainen and was in a 2-2 tie through 40 minutes. The Sabres took a 3-2 lead when rookie Tim Schaller, playing just his third NHL game, jammed the puck past Tuukka Rask at 1:27 of the third period for his first NHL goal.
“I didn’t even know to celebrate,” said Schaller, a former Providence player who had played games here as a collegian and had his parents in the stands. “I threw my hands up. Everyone came and gave me a hug so I guess that’s all I needed.”
Nolan said afterward he might cancel Monday’s practice in Detroit to give the players a “quarantine day.” Former No. 1 draft choice Joel Armia could be in line for a call-up and his NHL debut Tuesday against Detroit.
“The way the game ended, you’re disappointed,” Nolan said. “But the effort, you couldn’t ask for more.”