CALGARY, Alberta -- For 40 minutes, this one was an unwatchable, unexplainable snoozer.
Then Rasmus Ristolainen rewrote the Sabres' record book in a memorable third period that was the signature performance to date in the young career of Buffalo's 21-year-old defensive stalwart. But it went for naught as the Sabres' Western Canada road trip concluded with a hat trick of the wrong kind.
Ristolainen scored three goals in a spectacular stretch of just under 12 minutes, twice forging ties in a game the Calgary Flames seemed to have under control. But the Flames finally pulled out a 4-3 win on Johnny Gaudreau's goal with 4:50 to play, delighting a crowd of 18,565 in the Scotiabank Saddledome.
The Sabres thus slink home with an 0-3 trip and staring at the stunningly real possibility of being in last place in the NHL's overall standing by the end of this weekend.
Buffalo had only 14 shots on goal and was in a 2-0 hole after two periods before Ristolainen got the Sabres even with power-play goals at 2:27 and 4:44 of the third. The latter came off a Ryan O'Reilly faceoff win three seconds after Calgary's Sam Bennett was sent off for tripping.
Sean Monahan put Calgary back ahead with his second goal of the game at 10:35 of the period but Ristolainen knotted the score again at 3-3 with a bank shot off Flames defenseman Dennis Weidman with 5:45 to go.
It was Ristolainen's first NHL hat trick and he couldn't really recall many from his younger days in Finland.
"I don't know. Maybe when I was 10 or something when I played forward," he said. "I don't really remember. Maybe never."
"He's an exceptional talent and he's turning into a game-changer," said veteran Josh Gorges, Ristolainen's partner. "We needed someone to step up in the third and he sure did. He's getting better every day. Tonight he showed he's a difference maker. When we need someone to step up defensively, he's there. When we need someone to step up offensively, he's there like we saw."
Ristolainen has seven goals and 21 points on the season. He's second on the team in points and fourth in goals. Among all NHL defensemen, he's now tied for fifth in both goals and points.
"He stepped up in a big way," said coach Dan Bylsma. "And it feels like a wasted effort."
The Sabres' public relations staff and the Elias Sports Bureau burned some midnight oil to give the following historical rundown on Ristolainen's feat:
- It was Buffalo's first hat trick in nearly three years, since Thomas Vanek scored three goals in a 7-4 win at Boston on Jan. 31, 2013.
- It was the first by a Buffalo defenseman since Phil Housley against New Jersey on Jan. 22, 1988. Ristolainen is the sixth Sabres blueliner to get three goals in a game.
- Ristolainen joined Jerry Korab as the only Sabres defensemen to score three goals in a period. Korab did his deed in a 9-2 win over Minnesota in Memorial Auditorium on Nov. 19, 1978.
- Ristolainen is the first Sabre to score three goals in a period since Vanek burned Tampa Bay on March 19, 2008. He became the first NHL defenseman with three in a period since St. Louis' Al MacInnis scored thrice against the New York Rangers on Oct. 12, 1998.
- The last NHL defenseman with a hat trick in a game his team lost in regulation was Edmonton's Marc-Andre Bergeron, on Jan. 14, 2006 against Ottawa.
"That's special," Ristolainen said. "That doesn't happen often to me so I take it but we really need wins and we've got to find a way to put it together."
The Sabres lost this one because their forwards were mostly no-shows until the third period, defensive coverages were dropped with regularity and goaltender Chad Johnson let in a bad winning goal. It came as Gaudreau's unscreened shot from the right circle on a give-and-go with Monahan got through Johnson's legs.
Bylsma wasn't blaming Johnson at all, especially given how bad his team was until Ristolainen woke everybody up.
"I don't think we played with a lot of heart. We didn't play with a lot of passion the first two periods," Bylsma said. "We need a lot more from a lot of guys in that regard."
Said Ristolainen: "That wasn't what we wanted. A bad two periods. They outworked and outbattled us. That's not the way we should play. Three losses, tough road trip. We've got to pick it up."