TORONTO – Saturday night was game 73. The first of 10 games to finish a season that essentially began on that blazing South Florida night nine months ago when Jack Eichel walked across a stage and donned his blue and gold sweater for the first time.
Eichel was in sick bay Saturday, sidelined by the flu. His teammates played like they were infected too.
The 4-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs was a huge downer, easily the Sabres’ biggest no-show in more than a month. Especially when you consider that it came against a Toronto lineup full of AHL players, guys with fewer than 20 games of NHL experience. You weren’t wrong tweeting about the game using the hashtag #Marlies instead of #Leafs.
The Sabres entered the game with 68 points, needing to get 14 of the final 20 available to finish at .500 with 82. You wondered if it was possible, then ice cold water doused that thought.
Prior to the game, coach Dan Bylsma reminded reporters he preaches win two of every three to his players. But the coach admitted he had a more global view.
“If we win 60 percent of those games, it would be 12 points,” said a smiling Bylsma. “Gets us real close. We would be right there. I have thought about that personally in my mind where we could get to. But really with our team, we’re just looking at the three games, looking at 66 percent of your points there.”
After the clunker, there was no smiles. Bylsma was understandably disturbed.
“We didn’t have a lot of compete,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of battle level.”
Succinct and accurate. It had to be particularly troublesome to see how bad his team was without Eichel, a star in the making but still a 19-year-old.
But Bylsma was quick to remind reporters the Sabres are 2 for 2 in no-shows at Air Canada Centre this month. Their 4-3 shootout win here 12 days previously was a Houdini act, a quick wipeout of a two-goal deficit in the final 15 minutes.
“We played them in here last time in this building and it was similar for 40 minutes – with Jack in the lineup,” Bylsma said. “Without the speed in our lineup, it’s evident but it’s not the be-all, it’s not why we got out-competed today.”
“Obviously it’s a big void but that’s not the reason we lost,” added captain Brian Gionta. “The last two times we’ve been in here, we haven’t been our best. We’ve got to find a way to solve that.”
The Sabres appear to have a ceiling of 23rd place overall, pedestrian in most cases but certainly an improvement after two straight years of finishing 30th. They were 15-22-4 in the first half, a points percentage of just .415, but have improved to 14-12-6 in their last 32 games. That’s a .531 clip.
Starting Tuesday in Carolina, there are nine games left with only three at home. What should be some of the goals?
• No more games like Saturday. None. The Sabres didn’t have a shot on goal in the final 13:15 of the first period and were a minus-18 Corsi as the Leafs had a 24-6 advantage in attempts over the opening 20 minutes. Here’s hoping the teams will find more intensity in Buffalo March 31 thanks to the likely influx of plenty of Toronto fans.
• Sweep the last three home games, against Winnipeg, Toronto and Columbus. That would give the Sabres closing marks of 5-0-1 in their last six and 6-1-3 in their last 10 in First Niagara Center. And that would be significant for Eichel’s often-stated goal of having a tough home rink for opponents to visit.
• Get Eichel and Sam Reinhart to 25 goals apiece. Eichel is at 22 and Reinhart entered Saturday at 20. Raise your hand if you thought they would both score 25, or even 20 this year. Thought so.
• Get a goal at home from Zemgus Girgensons. Seriously. A former No. 1 draft choice who a major decision has to be made on for the future does not have a single goal in 32 home games this year. He has all five of his goals and 12 of his 15 points on the road. Baffling. He’s a restricted free agent and he better not be looking for lots of years or dollar signs on his next deal.
• Get Chad Johnson to 20 wins. The team’s backup goaltender has 17 and no Sabre has hit 20 in a season since Ryan Miller four years ago. Johnson has put himself in line to get a look at a two-year deal from somebody this summer, perhaps his hometown club in Calgary.
• Less of Matt Moulson. A lot less. The guy has one goal since Halloween. With Eichel out, he got a chance on the top line Saturday with Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane. By the third period, he was off it. Three years left on his contract? Oy vey.
• Get Tyler Ennis back on the ice. We haven’t seen him since he got concussed by Alex Ovechkin on Dec. 30. Bylsma insists he’s getting better. You know the Sabres would like to see Ennis play a couple games, for his benefit and to help his trade value in the offseason. Right now, it’s close to nil because he hasn’t played a single shift in calendar year 2016.