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Shutout loss to Stars continues Sabres' pattern of offensive offense

DALLAS -- Just 17 seconds into the game Saturday night, Matt Moulson found himself in alone on Dallas goalie Antti Niemi after a neat feed from captain Brian Gionta.

But the Sabres' winger, a $5 million player stuck on four goals for eight games now, couldn't give his team an early lead. Niemi made the save with his left pad as the puck trickled near the post.

It was an early omen. That's the kind of night it was for the Sabres.

With their offense slipping into a deeper funk, Buffalo suffered a 3-0 loss to the Stars in American Airlines Center. It was the Sabres' first shutout defeat of the season and continued their growing trend of offensive struggles.

The Sabres have scored just four times in the last four games -- and three of those goals are from Ryan O'Reilly.

Minus its one team-credited shootout winner, Buffalo has just 42 goals in 20 games this season and its average of 2.1 per game is just 27th in the 30-team NHL. The Sabres are on pace to score just 172 goals for the season and that would rank only ahead of the last two seasons in franchise history. Both of those, of course, resulted in last-place finishes in the league's overall standing.

"The puck kind of bobbled and I didn't put it where I wanted to," Moulson, a three-time 30-goal scorer with the New York Islanders, somberly said of his key chance. "You try to get to the net, get pucks in. That's all you can do. You can't feel sorry for yourself in this game. You have to keep working and generate shots and chances."

Moulson was frustrated because he didn't give the Sabres an early leg up on the NHL's best team and Buffalo instead fell into a 1-0 hole after the first period for the fourth straight game. Meanwhile, rookie Jack Eichel was disturbed because he couldn't bring his team back.

Eichel had three shots on goal in the game and all were quality chances. Niemi stopped one off a 2-on-1 break with Evander Kane and the other two came on rushes as Eichel cut in front from Niemi's right.

The No. 2 overall draft pick remains second on the club in goals with six but has a minus-6 rating. Eichel has no goals in the last five games and just one in his last seven.

"I have a long way to go," the 19-year-old said pointedly. "I have not been too happy with a lot of my peformances so far this season. We're 20 games into the year. I think I have a lot more to give in all areas. I don't think this is nearly where I should be.

"I can do more. Scoring, faceoffs, power play, penalty kill. Everything."

The Sabres had only 22 shots on goal in the game, tied for their second-lowest total of the season. That will happen when you have to kill five penalties. The Buffalo power play, meanwhile, went 0 for 3 to slip to 1 for its last 13. And for the third time in two games, it failed to convert on a 5-on-3 advantage.

"We had a few chances but we turned too many pucks over," Eichel said. "You can't feed a team like that with transition. We were in the box a lot too. Just not good enough. It's tough to get going 5-on-5 when you're in the box. Then we had our own chances on the power play and weren't able to capitalize."

Coach Dan Bylsma said he senses the frustation building among his forwards.

"We have opportunities and looks at the net in a couple instances," Bylsma said. "Matt had one in there at the start of the game that's a real good look for a goal scorer. We had a couple 2-on-1s with good people in good spots to score goals and weren't able to convert."

"We have to caplitalize on our chances. That's a big thing," Moulson said. "We're working. Maybe a play here and there by all of us is a difference right now."

Of growing concern is the play of winger Tyler Ennis, who has not scored in nine games and is having major issues controlling the puck. Ennis then took a holding penalty which led to Jamie Benn's power-play goal at 7:11 of the third and gave the Stars an insurmountable 2-0 lead.

Ennis, a 20-goal man each of the last two seasons, is stuck at three with the season a quarter over.

Asked if he sensed that Ennis' game is completely out of synch at this point, Bylsma pondered the inquiry, smiled and then said simply, "I think you just answered the question."

Particularly troublesome to the Sabres was the opportunity lost on this two-game trip to the Midwest, where a shootout defeat in St. Louis and this game could have easily turned into wins against two of the Western Conferences top teams.

"These teams play heavier hockey but we've had chances," Eichel said. "We could have beaten St. Louis. We had San Jose in overtime and that could have been another win. This game is 1-0 going into the third and we had a 5-on-3 in the second that we don't score and don't even get any real good chances on."

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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