DALLAS – So what have amounted to the preliminary games, all 73 of them, are now over.
The Buffalo Sabres were stunned by the Dallas Stars, 4-3, Monday night in American Airlines Center and it sets the stage for two days of buildup before Thursday night’s visit by the Arizona Coyotes.
And by this point, if you don’t know what that game is all about, you probably should be looking at another section for your reading entertainment.
The teams are even in games played at 73, with Arizona giving Buffalo a game in hand again when it plays Tuesday night at Detroit. The Coyotes – who are 1-17-1 in their last 19 games – have 50 points while Buffalo has 47.
It looked like the Sabres would enter the “showdown” with at least 48 points and maybe even 49. Buffalo led this game three times, only to watch Dallas score two goals in the last 8 minutes to squeeze out the victory.
This was one of the more demoralizing losses the Sabres have had in some time. But for those rooting for Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, it had to be one of the more exhilarating results of this stretch run.
“We’ve been dealing with that for quite some time,” growled coach Ted Nolan. “It seems everybody has their focus on a draft choice but our focus is trying to get these guys to compete and try to win a game. That’s where our focus will be.”
When the buzzer ended, Tyler Ennis slammed his stick on the ice a couple of times in frustration before heading to the dressing room. A flu-ridden Ennis missed the morning skate but had plenty of legs and collected five shots on goal.
“I thought we had it and we deserved it,” said Ennis. “We get a little scrambly and that’s how fast you can lose it. You have to play tight for 60 minutes.
“This is all weirder from the outside perspectives. For us we try to win every game. If we didn’t, I don’t think we’d have a very frustrated group in here right now. We take every game the same. We want to win.”
Dallas won the game on Cody Eakin’s goal with 3:14 left, as he took a John Klingberg pass in front of Mikhail Grigorenko and beat Anders Lindback. The Stars had tied the game at 3-3 on Patrick Eaves’ deflection with 7:25 to go.
It was a wild game that saw the Sabres lead three times and Dallas come back to tie each time. The third period featured two incredible bounces that had to leave Sabres fans dreaming of McEichel wincing at the bizarre puck luck.
With the score tied at 2-2, the Sabres nearly suffered a calamitous mistake with 14 minutes left during a delayed penalty against the Stars when Mike Weber’s back pass hit the post – on the empty Sabres net as Lindback had headed to the bench for an extra attacker.
Buffalo took a 3-2 lead at 10:52, a couple of minutes after that power-play ended, on a fluky goal by Matt Moulson. Ennis sped in on a breakaway and hit the crossbar but the puck flew high into the air. It plopped right down in the crease and Moulson tapped it home.
“No one saw where the puck one until it fell right there,” said Brian Gionta, who had Buffalo’s other two goals. “Moulson did a great job sticking with it. We get a lead that late in the game, we have to do a better job getting a good outcome.”
The Stars outshot Buffalo, 39-28, and had an incredible 101 shot attempts. But the Sabres blocked 43 shots. Still, Buffalo made just enough mistakes.
“Guys here really dig deep and try to do whatever they can,” said Lindback. “It’s honorable. It’s fun playing behind these guys because they work so hard, try so hard. A night like this is even more disappointing.”
A couple of key mistakes really hurt. Rochester call-up Tim Schaller had an easy clear on a penalty kill early in the third period and failed to get the puck out, leading to Jamie Benn’s goal at 1:56 that made it 2-2. Tyson Strachan was in the box for delay of game after shooting the puck over the glass.
Gionta opened the scoring at 13:39 of the first period by sweeping home a Marcus Foligno rebound after some good work in the corner and a neat pass to the slot by Grigorenko. Benn tied it on a tip-in of an Eaves shot at 19:31.
Gionta made it 2-1 at 11:07 of the second as Johan Larsson’s shot pinballed home, hitting Gionta and then going in off Dallas defenseman Patrick Demers. Back came the Stars with Benn’s second goal.