ST. LOUIS – At even strength, the Buffalo Sabres were better than one of the elite teams in the Western Conference here Thursday night. They scored twice, and goaltender Linus Ullmark blanked the St. Louis Blues in 5-on-5 play.
But that is only part of the equation. And it wasn’t good enough because special teams play burned the Sabres in their 3-2 shootout loss to the St. Louis Blues in Scottrade Center.
The Sabres went 0 for 4 on the power play - coming up empty on a pair of two-man advantages - and their struggling penalty-killers gave up two more goals. In the end, Alexander Steen’s tally in the final round of the shootout dropped Buffalo to 0-1-2 in its last three games.
“Playing a tough team in a hard place to get points, I thought we battled them pretty good,” said coach Dan Bylsma. “It just comes down to special teams.”
The Sabres didn’t do much on their first 5-on-3 situation, which consisted of 49 seconds late in the second period. Tyler Ennis fired wide of the St. Louis net and the puck skittered out of the zone, killing their momentum.
Buffalo had a huge chance for a tiebreaking goal early in the third as David Backes went off for boarding at 5:22, just 13 seconds after Scott Gomez’s slashing penalty. The Sabres controlled the puck in the Blues zone for virtually the entire 1:47 and had six shots on goal but couldn’t crack St. Louis goaltender Jake Allen.
The best chance came when Ryan O’Reilly looked to have Allen beat but the St. Louis goaltender dove to his left to make a sprawling stop.
“That’s a must-convert. That’s on me,” O’Reilly said. “I had multiple chances to bury it. We have good chances like that we don’t bury at all. I had two point-blank ones.”
“We had some shots,” Bylsma said. “I don’t know if they were ‘Grade A’ spots but we had some shots and weren’t able to capitalize.”
The Sabres outshot the Blues in the game, 34-29, and used momentum from the 5-on-3 to collect 13 of their shots in the third period.
“You have to keep things simpler than we have been,” said Sam Reinhart, who scored at even strength early in the second period. “We’re definitely going to practice it. On the second one, we started keeping things a little more simple, not forcing as many things.”
While the failed power play got the bulk of the post-game chatter, the Sabres have been very good with the man-advantage this season. They entered the game third in the league after finishing last in 2014-15 and 29th the previous year.
“If you want to win games, you’ve got to be better in those areas, both the PK and the PP,” Ullmark said. “It’s not just one guy’s fault. It’s something we need to work on. We had some really good chances and it’s just a matter of inches for us to get the third goal or not.”
The far bigger crisis is Buffalo’s penalty kill. The Sabres entered the game 25th in the league - and dead last on the road. They’re now at a meager 65 percent away from First Niagara Center after the Blues went 2 for 3.
St. Louis is heating up on its power play after opening the season 0 for 23 at home. The Blues got a goal from Kevin Shattenkirk 34 seconds after Ennis was nailed for a boarding major in the first period, and scored again in the second as Vladimir Tarasenko converted 62 seconds after Jake McCabe took a hooking penalty.
On the road, of course, you don’t have the last change so matchups can be a problem. The Sabres need a mentality makeover to not be so passive when playing short-handed.
“It’s a problem tonight, a big problem for us,” O’Reilly said. “It’s something we have to address. We have to find a way to solve it.”
“I don’t think it’s a road issue or a home issue but we have to get better and we gave up two goals,” Bylsma said. “It’s the game. In 5 on 5, we’re plus in the game.”