Jake McCabe looks at the NHL standings and sees the Sabres near the bottom. Then he looks at Buffalo’s record in one-goal games and understands why.
The Sabres have made the leap from doormat to competitive team, but they have one huge hurdle to overcome. They need to win the close ones. Buffalo is 11-13-9 in one-goal games, a winning percentage of .333 that ranks 29th in the 30-team NHL.
“We play good hockey, but we make those big mistakes that end up costing us games,” McCabe said Friday. “You look at the playoff picture and you think back, ‘What if?’
“It’s five games, 10 points and we’re right back in the mix of things. Looking back now, it’s even tougher.”
The defenseman, who will join the rest of the Sabres in hosting Carolina on Saturday afternoon, was on the mark with his assessment of five games being the difference. The teams in the middle of the rankings for one-goal games have a winning percentage of .488. Switch five losses for five wins, and Buffalo’s record of 16-8-9 would be .484. Add 10 more points to the Sabres’ total, and they’d be tied with the Hurricanes just three points out of a playoff spot.
Ifs, whats and buts can drive the Sabres nuts.
“It’s one more win every month,” McCabe lamented. “It sounds simple, but it goes back to those little mistakes we make along the way and lose those close games. It’s just learning how to win and learning how to close out games.”
Including Thursday’s 3-2 loss in Montreal, nine of the Sabres’ last 18 games have been decided by a goal. They are just 1-3-5, leaving a bunch of attainable points in the hands of others.
“There’s a ton of those this year,” forward Zemgus Girgensons said in First Niagara Center. “Our standings would be way different if we had half of those one-goal games the other way.
“It takes experience. If you have a lead, you know you have to play smarter. You have to limit all the mistakes. It’s not easy to win those one-goal games, but that’s how it is. The whole league is good, so there’s going to be a lot of one-goal games.”
The loss in Montreal summed up the Sabres’ problems in one-goal games:
• After taking a 1-0 lead, Buffalo allowed the tying goal just nine seconds later.
• They blew coverage during a penalty kill, leaving Canadiens sniper Alex Galchenyuk wide-open in front for a goal.
• They gave up the winner with 6:39 to play, depriving them of an overtime point.
“The hardest thing about last night’s game is we feel we didn’t make them work very hard for what they got,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “We felt we made mistakes, easy mistakes that gave them opportunities.
“We fight back in that game to get even, 2-2, in the third period, you certainly feeling like and looking like you should get out of that game with a point or an opportunity to win.”
The Sabres’ record in one-goal games is essentially the only area they haven’t improved compared to the previous two last-place seasons. They were actually better at the close ones last year, going 18-13-8 (.462). They were 13-17-10 (.325) in one-goal games in 2013-14.
The true mark of the Sabres’ competitiveness comes in the absence of blowouts. They are 6-8 in two-goal games and 10-12 in games decided by three goals or more, meaning they’re almost as likely to win a rout as get routed.
Last season, they were 1-12 in two-goal games and 4-26 in three-goal contests. The year before, they were a ridiculous 1-19 in games decided by three goals or more.
They’re getting closer to the rest of the NHL, but too often they play just well enough to lose.
“You look back at the goals we gave up, and it’s so close,” McCabe said. “We’ve just got to keep moving forward and improve.”