Ryan O’Reilly sensed the mood in the dressing room after the meltdown Tuesday in Philadelphia. The overtime loss was one thing, but the manner in which the Sabres blew a 3-0 lead in the third period, and a 3-1 lead in the final three minutes, was more demoralizing than the defeat itself.
For some reason, the Sabres had the audacity to believe a win over the Flyers was locked up. How? Why? You would think an organization that finished dead last two straight years before skyrocketing to mediocrity would have received a healthy dose of insecurity that forever cured them against overconfidence.
But that wasn’t the case in Philly.
Rather than make sure the door was bolted shut, they handed over the combination and steered the Flyers toward the vault. The Sabres became complacent with their own security and panicked when greeted by a crisis before disintegrating, like their lead, into a heap.
Their response to that embarrassing rubout was a 4-0 loss Thursday to the Wild before 18,122 fans in KeyBank Center who cheered a merciful announcement that one minute remained in regulation. Buffalo surrendered the first two goals in the first period and showed up for the final 40 minutes, only to watch Minnesota pull away with two more goals.
“We were so disappointed, to a man, about letting that one slip in Philly,” O’Reilly said afterward. “To come back, we wanted to play too good. There was too much thought into it. It’s an instant game. It starts with supporting each other and winning battles.”
Added up, Minnesota succeeded in Buffalo in the very phase in which Buffalo failed two nights earlier in Philly. The Wild conducted a demonstration on how to build big leads and keep them. The Sabres outshot them, 30-9, over the final two periods, when the Wild were deep into lockdown mode, and it didn't matter.
See, that’s what good teams do.
The Sabres broke a cardinal rule Thursday, allowing one loss to lead them to another. They overcorrected mistakes against the Flyers and came out flat in the first period against the Wild. It was the mark of a trying to find its way while searching for the proper balance between playing with intelligence and instincts.
“In the third period, the plays they made with the puck, that was how we need to come to understand how to play with the lead,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “We had a tough time bringing it the way we needed to in the third because of the way they played.”
For a season that appeared headed in the right direction, the Sabres have since made a U-turn toward the NHL basement. The assignment now is overcoming their 1-3-2 start and showing signs of maturity, which had become a buzzword leading into Thursday’s game.
It means making rediscovering the commitment that led to improvement last year, when Buffalo made a 17-point leap up the standings from the previous season. It means adhering to their system, playing smart and trusting one another. It means playing under control and not caving under pressure.
And it doesn’t happen overnight.
“The difference between the first-place team and the last team, it’s so tight now,” O’Reilly said. “We have to become more mature and have a beginner’s mindset, where you’re constantly learning and improving every day. We know we have to grow up, for sure.”
Anders Nilsson didn’t help the cause when Swedish countryman Joel Eriksson Ek scored the first goal five minutes into the game on a wrist shot from a terrible angle. Minnesota had a 2-0 lead after Jason Zucker sliced through the middle on a breakaway and added Ryan Suter’s goal and an empty-netter in the third.
Buffalo pushed over the final two periods but failed to break through. The Sabres have scored seven even-strength goals in six games.
It’s not what many envisioned.
Bylsma warned people several times since last season that the results of one season don’t always carry into the next. The Sabres experienced a few growth spurts last year while making a jump in the standings. Naturally, they hoped to build off their final 41 games last season and continue onward and upward.
But progress rarely follows a straight line. The graph usually shows sharp improvement from one year to the next, which happened last season after the 2014-15 debacle, and numerous dips along the way. The goal is reaching a level reserved for perennial playoff teams. It will get tougher as the Sabres get better.
“Everyone expected us to be better this year,” O’Reilly said. “The only way to do that is winning one at a time. We have to come back and start getting some wins back.”
Through six games, they looked like a young, fragile team that’s enduring residual pain from Jack Eichel’s high-ankle sprain. Buffalo was jolted again when Evander Kane fractured his ribs in the opener. It sounded like fans were ready for a communal leap off the Skyway.
Really, though, the injuries were an opportunity for others to accelerate their growth and not a convenient excuse for failure. If the Sabres could make progress without two top-six forwards, they would come of age when Eichel and Kane returned. Instead, it exposed other holes in the roster and confirmed Tim Murray has much work ahead.
Eichel is terrific, but there are no saviors in hockey. That’s why his injury and the one Kane suffered, while unfortunate, shouldn’t have been viewed as the apocalypse. If anything, it accentuated the Sabres’ need to play smart and play together.
“You win hockey games certain ways, and you win them regardless of who is in your lineup and who is not in your lineup,” Bylsma said. “We’d all like to have Jack in our lineup, but we still have to understand how to understand hockey games regardless of who’s in there. That’s where we need to get to.”
The Sabres aren’t getting much sympathy. Nobody pitied Bylsma in 2010-11, when the Penguins were without Sidney Crosby for 41 games and Evgeni Malkin for 39 contests. Pittsburgh had enough competitiveness, talent and depth to win the division. It was the mark of a good team.
Buffalo is a long way from becoming one.