There was space to work but there was also space to make mistakes.
The first taste of regular-season three-on-three for the Buffalo Sabres saw a few chances, a few hiccups and a heaping dose of tentative play.
Neither the Sabres nor the Toronto Maple Leafs were able to score in the new NHL overtime format. The Sabres ended up taking the win, 2-1, via shootout at First Niagara Center Wednesday night.
The best scoring chance for Buffalo came on a two-on-one rush generated by Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly. On the other end, goalie Chad Johnson made three key saves to ensure the Sabres left with at least one point.
“We need to get better at it,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said of the three-on-three format. “We remarked coming in, it was a lot more controlled and slower. Two times, we got an odd man rush with O’Reilly and Kane they got an odd-man rush the other way but it was fairly controlled. They had a fair amount of offensive zone time with the puck. You’re looking for one turnover to kind of explode out of it and get an odd-man rush. It was fairly controlled and slow.”
Part of the controlled, slow pace is strategy. One mistake and the opponent is rushing down the ice on your goaltender with an excellent scoring chance. But strategy needs to be balanced against creating opportunities.
“I think it’s a lot of strategy just to not turn pucks over, bring it back, change when you have the puck and if they make a mistake you have to capitalize or it’s going the other way,” Zemgus Girgensons said. At one point in the OT, Girgensons got the puck near the offensive blue line and skated it out, favoring retaining possession over forcing the play. That move wasn’t necessarily by design.
“I think we still have to work on it,” Girgensons said. “We’re just testing it out. I don’t think anyone really knows what the best thing is to do right now.”
While Girgensons played the format during the exhibition games, it was the first time Tyler Ennis had a chance to play three-on-three.
“It was new to me, it was fresh,” Ennis said. “I thought maybe we sat back a little bit too much. We didn’t play with enough speed but it can be dangerous, too, to take chances three-on-three. You don’t want to give up anything, so” Johnson “made a couple big saves in there but I think we can play a little quicker.”
Johnson made three saves in the OT and noted that the format changes his approach a little bit.
“For me it’s sort of playing it almost like a summer hockey game – turnovers here and there and a lot of chances,” Johnson said. “I guess those three-on-three down low situations we do in practice helps.”
Speaking of Johnson, the backup goalie thrust into the starter’s role has continued to be steady for the Sabres.
He gave up a goal 1:28 into the game on a shot that was tipped and redirected. He made 23 saves after that.
“I thought the first shot being a shot from the point that gets tipped and goes by him, it’s kind of a tough one to start the game with and he didn’t see a lot of shots in the first minus that one,” Bylsma said. “I thought he really settled in in the second and third. I don’t know how many quality scoring chances he had, but he had a few of them that he was really strong particularly in the overtime. Again he gave us a chance to win tonight and we kinda pull it out through the shootout.”
In the other net, Jonathan Bernier was stopping everything the Sabres were throwing at him. He had blanked Buffalo on their first 32 shots before being beat by Kane, who played a puck from the corner to the tie the game with 4:29 left in regulation.
“I just really wanted to come out and be focused all night,” Bernier said. “Too bad I didn’t see that goal there from the corner. After that obviously the crowd came back into it. … Obviously I’m frustrated that I didn’t win tonight.”
Bernier is still winless in his first four games for the Maple Leafs but his play in the first period was a vast improvement from his past three outings.
“I thought we did a good job on keeping clear in front of the net and then on rebounds and stuff like that,” Bernier said. “We’re just trying to get to that spot and I actually felt pretty good.”
Bobby Sanguinetti, who has been injured since the opening days of Buffalo’s training camp, was placed on waivers Wednesday afternoon. If he clears, he will report to Rochester.
The Sabres signed Sanguinetti to a one-year, two-way contract during the offseason. The defenseman will make $300,000 in Rochester, according to GeneralFanager.com.