SUNRISE, Fla. – For old times’ sake, the Buffalo Sabres endured one last shot barrage Saturday afternoon. And now the attention for the next 36 hours turns to General Manager Tim Murray and his continued retooling of this franchise.
The Sabres were overpowered by the Florida Panthers, 5-3, in a strange game at BB&T Center that saw goaltender Michal Neuvirth nearly steal more points in the standings. The Sabres actually led 2-0, through 32 minutes before Florida’s Brandon Pirri scored a pair of power-play goals in an 83-second span to get the Panthers even. Florida eventually won it as Scottie Upshall snapped a 3-3 tie on a goal with 5:58 to play and Derek MacKenzie added an empty netter.
The Sabres were outshot, 47-14, and the Panthers had a monstrous 76-30 advantage in shot attempts in the game. The shots on goal over the final two periods were an eye-popping 37-8, but Neuvirth was again stellar in giving his team a chance.
The Upshall goal came 68 seconds after Torrey Mitchell potted a Matt Moulson pass to pull the Sabres into a 3-3 tie with 7:06 left.
“Our discipline wasn’t there tonight,” said coach Ted Nolan, who saw his team’s two-game winning streak snapped. “Too many penalties. … They’re a big club and we kind of ran out of gas.”
The Sabres will take Sunday off and are slated to practice Monday morning in Tampa before facing the Lightning Tuesday night. Burly winger Chris Stewart and Mitchell, who has three goals in the last two games, are virtually certain to be traded by Monday’s 3 p.m. deadline. Neuvirth, and defenseman Andrej Meszaros and Andre Benoit are also unrestricted free agents and could go as well.
“Like I’ve said all year, it’s out of your control,” Stewart said. “I’m not going to say I’m expecting it, but I won’t be surprised.”
“We know it’s pretty much 100 percent there’s going to be changes,” Mitchell said. “But that can be the case with a lot of winning teams too. You can’t overthink it really.”
Neuvirth surprised reporters when he pointed out he packed for only a two-game road trip and did not bring his passport.
“We’ll see what happens,” Neuvirth said. “It’s a business. If I do go, I would be surprised. It’s going to be interesting, but right now I don’t stress about getting traded at all.”
Stewart has been Buffalo’s hottest commodity all season. It’s widely known the Sabres and Boston Bruins have had numerous talks about Stewart. He was sent from playoff-bound St. Louis to Buffalo last year and is ready to go the other direction this time, from a going-nowhere club to one shooting for help for the playoffs.
“I’ve got no regrets here. I’ve had a great time in Buffalo,” Stewart said. “If it does happen, I’m chomping at the bit. That’s why all of us play. We want to win a Stanley Cup. We want to play playoff hockey. That’s the best time of the year. It’s no fun going home and watching it, that’s for sure. I’m sick of watching it. I did it last year. I’ve seen enough.”
With the deadline looming, the Sabres played the game straight – Nolan called it “status quo” when he arrived at the arena. That potential trade bait all suited up rather than sit as a cautionary scratch. That’s what Edmonton did Saturday with defenseman Jeff Petry.
“That’s not my responsibility,” the coach said of pulling a player for a potential trade. “My responsibility is to try to win some hockey games and get the guys out there.”
Still, fans and Murray were probably holding their breath at a couple points pondering deals. Mitchell was clipped with a high stick on a faceoff and played just two shifts in the first period before returning. In the second period, Stewart was taken down by Panthers defenseman Steven Kampfer and plowed into goaltender Roberto Luongo in a big pileup that included the net getting pushed to the back boards.
Fortunately for all involved in that play, there were no injuries.
The Sabres silenced the tiny crowd of 10,374 – and the nearly 10,000 empty seats – by jumping to a 2-0 lead in the first 7½ minutes on goals by Cody Hodgson and Meszaros.
Hodgson got Buffalo on the board at 2:57 with a quick one-timer from the left circle after some nice legwork in the offensive zone by Zach Bogosian. It was Hodgson’s fourth goal of the season – but second in three games after he had just two in his first 56 games. Meszaros surprised everyone in the building by making it 2-0 at 7:18, dipping a quick snapshot under Roberto Luongo for his third of the season and second in two games.
At that point, the Sabres had two goals on three shots. As it turned out, they would manage just 11 shots in the final 53 minutes of play and couldn’t survive. Now the focus goes off the ice for a couple days, to the end of some players’ Buffalo careers and the start of new chapters.
“That’s what we just said right after the game here,” Nolan said. “ ‘I wonder if it’s so-and-so’s last game with us’ or ‘so and so could be’ whatever it could be. We don’t know that. We’ll just have to wait to see.”