NEW YORK – One thing that’s gone a little unnoticed about the Buffalo Sabres’ latest drive to the bottom of the NHL standings is the wildly inconsistent nature of their season.
The Sabres are in yet another downturn after Monday’s 6-3 loss to the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden, a game that was tied with 15 minutes left. It was Buffalo’s third straight defeat on the heels of a 4-1 stretch that featured three road wins.
Big swings have been the norm since mid-November. The Sabres went 0-4-2, 3-0-1, lost three straight, bounced back to go 4-1-1 in their next six, dropped six straight and then entered these latest two runs.
Some of it is youth and inexperience. Some of is underachieving from veterans. All of it adds up to a real chance of a third straight last-place finish overall.
With Columbus’ 5-2 win over imploding Montreal on Monday, the Sabres are just one point ahead of the last-place Blue Jackets. One.
Suffice to say that was not in the plan once Jack Eichel was in the fold.
“That consistency aspect of our game is something we want to get better at,” said Eichel, who assisted on Zemgus Girgensons’ two third-period goals that got the Sabres even at 3-3. “We’ve put ourselves in situations to win games but it seems like we’re finding ways to lose.
“Obviously there’s some frustration in the room. We want to get over that hump to that next tier of competitive teams and be able to come away with points in these games.”
When the issue was brought out to coach Dan Bylsma, he first exhaled in agreement before pondering the point.
“You can look at stretches of hockey and say we’ve played good but the consistency game-in and game-out? We haven’t had it,” Bylsma said. “We haven’t found ways to stay in hockey games, be in hockey games and win hockey games. … It’s something we don’t have in our game right now.”
With Buffalo down, 3-1, and nothing happening early in the third period, lightning struck twice.
Girgensons took a kicked puck from Eichel and beat Henrik Lundqvist high at 4:31 and then tied the game on a breakaway off an Eichel feed at 5:44.
After tallying one goal in 18 games, it was suddenly two goals in 74 seconds for the Latvian.
“I was just in the right place at the right time,” Girgensons said of the first goal. “It was a little bit lucky I was there. I just had to keep going. It’s been a little bit frustrating but you can’t get that in your head. You have to keep working.”
The Sabres couldn’t stand prosperity.
A Rasmus Ristolainen giveaway at the Rangers line led to a 3-on-2 break. Jasper Fast’s pass hit the stick of Zach Bogosian and ricocheted directly to J.T. Miller for a tap-in at 6:44 that put the Rangers ahead.
“It’s two shifts later we give up a 3-on-2 against,” Bylsma said. “You get back to even in the third and it’s disappointing to give up a goal so easily to let them have the game.”
Other than Eichel, Buffalo’s big names struggled in this one as Bogosian, Ristolainen, Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly all posted minus-3 ratings.
O’Reilly, Buffalo’s lone all-star, has not scored a goal in eight games and has a minus-14 rating in his last 13 games. Kane was woefully lax getting back into the defensive zone on a pair of goals, including the Miller winner. New York’s first tally, by defenseman Dylan McIlrath, deflected off Ristolainen’s stick, and a bounce of Bogosian’s stick redirected the puck to Miller for his goal.
“Weird bounce off our defenseman’s stick right over to them and they get the lead again,” Eichel said of New York’s fourth goal. “That’s a tough one to swallow.”
“It was great we were able to tie it but we just weren’t good enough to sustain pressure,” said captain Brian Gionta, who scored the Sabres’ first goal.”We weren’t able to handle their speed through the neutral zone and that’s what made us pay.”
In the final analysis, the Rangers scored four goals in the third period, with Derek Brassard giving them a 3-1 lead at 1:06 and hitting the empty net with 36 seconds left. Brassard had a career-high five-point night and his four-point third period was the first by a Ranger since Sean Avery did that against Boston in 2007.
The Sabres have one game left before the break, Tuesday’s encounter at Ottawa. The Blue Jackets and Canadiens meet again, this time at the Bell Centre. A result similar to Monday would leave Buffalo alone looking up at the entire NHL. Again.
“We have the game against Ottawa, the last one we have before the break,” Bylsma said. “And it’s one we have to look to and say we need to win.”