DENVER – The Sabres walked into Colorado’s arena Saturday with a chance to gain ground on 29th-place Arizona. A slow start kept them exactly where they were when the day started.
Colorado scored four times in the opening 27 minutes and held on for a 5-3 victory over Buffalo. The Sabres fell to 0-4-1 in their last five games. Once again, their next one is a big one.
The rematch with Arizona is set for Monday night in Gila River Arena. The Coyotes, who lost in Pittsburgh on Saturday, lead the Sabres by six points. Arizona has six games remaining, while Buffalo has seven. A regulation victory by the Coyotes would all but guarantee a 30th-place finish for the Sabres and a top-two draft pick.
The Sabres failed to pick up points by falling in a rollicking Pepsi Center. As the Avs celebrated “Star Wars Night,” their players skated like the Millennium Falcon on hyperdrive and struck with the precision of a lightsaber on the scoring plays.
The Force was with them as they got to Anders Lindback twice in the opening period and scored on their first two shots against Matt Hackett during the second.
The Sabres outshot Colorado, 38-22, but the good bounces and quality chances belonged to the Avs early. Buffalo outshot an opponent for just the seventh time in its 75 games.
Cody Hodgson led the Sabres with five shots through 40 minutes, but the attempts surprisingly came from the fourth line. He took part in the morning skate as the third-line right wing with center Phil Varone and left wing Nicolas Deslauriers, but Patrick Kaleta assumed the role for the game. Hodgson skated with Tim Schaller and Matt Ellis.
Colorado, which improved to 22-10-2 when finding the net first, opened the scoring when Marc-Andre Cliche’s point-blank shot glanced off Matt Moulson with 10:47 gone. With the fans still cheering 32 seconds later, the Avs made it 2-0.
After Matt Duchene sped into the Sabres’ zone on a give-and-go with Jarome Iginla, he found John Mitchell for a tip-in at the top of the crease. With the assist, Iginla (1,220) passed Jean Beliveau (1,219) for 40th on the NHL’s all-time points list.
Hackett, who can become an unrestricted free agent if he fails to play at least 30 minutes in 28 career games, entered at the start of the second period. He went the rest of the way to give him 23 such appearances, according to the yearly game log on NHL.com.
His finish was better than his start, though he could do nothing on the first goal. Buffalo defenseman Andrej Meszaros turned the puck over in his own zone, with Tyson Barrie eventually scoring alone from the slot.
Hackett looked skyward three minutes later when Duchene’s high shot found the net.
The Sabres made it interesting during the third period with three goals by their defense corps.
Meszaros ended the shutout bid of Semyon Varlamov with a dazzling goal 3:09 in. The blue-liner faked a slap shot, skated through the Avs’ defense and deked the goaltender out of the crease.
After Colorado made it 5-1, Meszaros scored his second of the night. His slap shot from the blue line zipped through the pads of Varlamov.
Rasmus Ristolainen scored his second goal in as many games with 11:17 left, fighting off Avalanche defenders to pull the Sabres within 5-3.
Right wing Tyler Ennis, who leads the Sabres with 19 goals and 42 points, walked through Pepsi Center with his left shoulder wrapped. It’s uncertain whether he’ll be able to play Monday.
“There’s been a number of guys missing this year, but when you miss a guy like him, that one definitely hurts,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said after the morning skate. “No disrespect to the rest, but he’s by far our most dynamic player, probably our MVP this year. It’s certainly tough without him.”
As expected, Nikita Zadorov was the Sabres’ healthy scratch on defense.
While still boasting offensive weaponry, the Avs were missing a couple of forwards. Old friend Daniel Briere has been out since blocking a shot with his foot Monday, while Nathan MacKinnon has been out since fracturing his foot early this month.