TAMPA, Fla. – When it comes to the Buffalo Sabres, it appears names may change but storylines will not.
Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Amalie Arena was Buffalo’s 40th regulation defeat of the season in 64 games. It followed a familiar script.
The goaltender was again perhaps the Sabres’ best player as Anders Lindback made 32 saves in his Buffalo debut. The offense was non-existent after a strong opening 10 minutes. The penalty killing was ineffective on the road.
Steven Stamkos scored his team-high 36th goal of the season in the first period while Ryan Callahan and Victor Hedman converted both ends of a five-on-three advantage early in the second and that was that. Tampa Bay backup goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, , a 20-year-old in his 11th NHL game, made 28 saves for his first NHL shutout and most were routine over the final two periods.
The Sabres dropped both games on their Southern swing after a 3-1-2 run. They’ll return home for a couple days before heading back on the road for games Friday at Ottawa and Saturday in Washington.
The Sabres finished last year 2-16-2 over their last 20 games to easily finish last overall. They didn’t win the draft lottery but were more than satisfied to take Sam Reinhart with the No. 2 pick. There’s a pretty good chance the final 20 games this year will be equally as putrid.
At one point Tuesday in a span stretching the first and second period, Buffalo went 19 minutes, 50 seconds without a shot on goal. As in 10 seconds shy of a full period.
The climactic stretch in Buffalo’s turtle race to 30th place started with Saturday’s 5-3 loss at Florida, the final game before Michal Neuvirth, Chris Stewart, Torrey Mitchell and Brian Flynn were moved at the trade deadline. It resumed Tuesday with the deadline-depleted Sabres, who now face long odds almost every night the rest of the way, getting outclassed by the NHL’s highest-scoring team.
“It’s a product of where we sit in the standings and it’s unfortunate,” said captain Brian Gionta. “A lot of good guys went. But you have to plug on. It’s part of being in this profession, dealing with tough situations. You have to make the best of it. There’s nothing you can do.”
“It’s the NHL, it’s a big business,” added winger Matt Moulson. “Sometimes decisions have to be made. Sometimes they’re tough decisions. I think no matter who you are, there’s something to play for at any point in the season.”
Coach Ted Nolan was grim when he met the media after the morning skate, a definite departure from his it’s-a-new-day attitude he’s brought to the rink throughout a tortuous season.
“It’s disheartening and discouraging for some of the guys that are here,” Nolan said of the moves. “We’ve still got to play, but when you see that many guys leave it’s kind of disheartening for a little bit. But life goes on and we get ready to play.”
Afterward, Nolan was happy the Sabres had several scoring chances from Moulson and Phil Varone early on when the game was scoreless and continued to work through a third period that saw them outshoot the foot-off-the-gas Lightning, 14-6.
“They lost close friends and they’re down but for 60 minutes during a hockey game they forgot about it and worked,” Nolan said. “It’s frustrating but now we know what we got.”
In the last 21 days, the Sabres have subtracted five skaters from their roster in Tyler Myers, Drew Stafford, Stewart, Mitchell and Flynn, and both starting goaltenders (Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth). They’ve also lost Zemgus Girgensons to a foot injury. What’s left? Not much. Buffalo dressed a roster that had combined for 65 goals all season and boasted just one player in double figures (Tyler Ennis with 15).
Tim Schaller returned from Rochester and former Toronto prospect Jerry D’Amigo came up from the Amerks to make his Buffalo debut. With Mitchell gone and Girgensons still out, season-long Amerks Varone and Johan Larsson are suddenly Buffalo’s top two centers.
The deck seems pretty stacked against Nolan’s group.
“That’s what I’m quite sure is set for us going forward,” the coach said. “It’s going to be a good opportunity for players that always wanted a chance to play in the National Hockey League. Now here’s your chance. Do something with it. Make us sign you. Make somebody else sign you. Here’s a platform for you.”
Buffalo got six of the game’s first seven shots, but Stamkos’ goal at 16:37 after a Nikita Zadorov turnover was the only goal in the first. The Sabres did nothing in the second period, however, as they were outshot, 17-4. The Sabres didn’t have a shot for the first 10:46. Rasmsus Ristolainen and Andrej Meszaros took penalties to create the two-man advantage and Tampa Bay capitalized to put the game away.