TAMPA -- The great tease of the Buffalo Sabres' season continues.
Just when they raise a few eyebrows and start to make you think a big streak is coming, this team comes up short. Instead of a game that makes you think they could actually sneak up in the Atlantic Division, it's a step back and a sobering dose of reality.
That's how Thursday's 4-2 loss to the to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Amalie Arena felt. Even with some goofy officiating that put the Sabres in a couple tough spots. Bottom line: Instead of passing an injury riddled team that had lost four straight and was closer to the Atlantic Division basement than a playoff spot, the Sabres dropped three points behind Tampa and saw their four-game point streak end.
It was major opportunity lost. Especially with the way the game started, as Matt Moulson's goal at 2:58 of the first period on the first shot by either team gave Buffalo a 1-0 lead. But Buffalo gave up the next three goals, two by Ondrej Palat, and had little sustained pushback until the third period.
"We start to play desperate in the third, which we really need to play from the start," Moulson said. "Every point is big and we have to play that way all game. We have to realize they're big points and play with that desperation."
This game was lost mostly on special teams as Tampa was 2 for 5 on the power play while the Sabres went 0 for 4. And the situations the Sabres found themselves in were critical.
Within three minutes of Moulson's goal, the Sabres were two men short on two ticky-tack calls: A slash on Kyle Okposo and a dubious hook on Evander Kane in the slot on a play where it looked like he routinely lifted a Tampa player's stick. Palat tied the game on the two-man advantage 25 seconds after Kane went to the box and the Sabres never led again.
"I didn't like going down 5-on-4 with that call and I didn't like going down 5-on-3 with that call," said coach Dan Bylsma. "That's the way the game goes and we did have our stick in there I guess and the referee called it. We had gotten the lead early on and that kind of gave them the opportunity to get back in the game."
Trailing, 3-1, the Sabres were much better in the third period. They outshot Tampa Bay, 12-11, and Kane scored off a Jack Eichel feed with 9:30 left to cut the deficit to one.
"That's what we have to do," Kane said. "Both 'D' pinched down the walls and didn't give them an easy breakout. We were aggressive. Make aggressive mistakes, if you're going to make one. Throughout the whole game, not just when we get down. It's a mindset. It's the way we have to play."
Kane was stopped in front by Ben Bishop a couple of minutes later as he nearly tied the game by grabbing the puck from behind the net and sneaking in front. It was Buffalo's last real chance. Wtih 2:17 left, Kane was in tight to the net again and had his stick lifted while he was shooting. It didn't appear to strike Bishop, but the goalie flailed his head and drew a high sticking call. An irate Kane also got an unsportmanlike conduct penalty and 10-minute misconduct.
"I've only played eight years in the league but I'm pretty sure on a followthrough it doesn't matter if you hit a player or a goalie, especially if the goalie is on his knees," Kane said pointedly. "Your stick comes up, gets lifted by their defenseman. I guess I was a little confused."
"Evander goes to shoot the puck and the act of what happens is a shooting motion. A shooting motion is not a high sticking penalty," Bylsma said. "That's really what I saw. I would have liked to not have that call. Would have liked the opportunity to still have the last 2 1/2 minutes and try to get the tie."
Instead, with no 6-on-5 chance, the Sabres couldn't get much pressure and Anton Stralman's empty net goal with 18 seconds left put the game away.
At the halfway mark of the season, the Sabres are 16-16-9 for 41 points in 41 games. It's an 82-point pace, certainly well short of the playoffs. Given all their injuries to date, perhaps Buffalo is lucky to even be doing that well.
Still, some major improvement has to happen in the second half for the Sabres to sneak into the race. And it's going to have to start against their most common foes. The Sabres are just 4-8-3 within the Atlantic Division -- which means they're 12-8-6 outside it.
The Sabres hit the airport after the game for Carolina, where they will face the Hurricanes Friday night. Now it's about salvaging a quick trip, and not about continuing a climb up the standings.
"That's the biggest disappointment in the game," Bylsma said. "We've won some games recently, gathered some points, have a chance to pass a team tonight and missed that opportunity. That's something we're going to have to put behind us here immediately."