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Disaster in the desert: Sabres melt down in lost weekend

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Forget about any playoff race. The Buffalo Sabres are toast after one of the most egregious weekends in recent franchise history.

Back-to-back games against the NHL's bottom two teams. Against two backup goaltenders, including one who had never won a game in the league. Two unspeakable losses.

Saturday's 5-3 loss in Colorado could be excuse-mongered away by being the first game off the bye and a toughie to deal with at altitude. Sunday's 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Arizona Coyotes in Gila River Arena was simply a meltdown.

Through 46 minutes, the Sabres had a 2-0 lead. They couldn't hold it.

Last week, the team put out a "Gone Fishin'" sign when it was time to head to its bye. The only sign General Manager Tim Murray should be holding up now is "For Sale."

Murray, the sharp-tongued GM who deftly took this team to the bottom, knew it would be difficult to make the climb back up. Even he couldn't have figured it would be this hard. His team made his decision easy for this week's trade deadline: Murray is a seller.

Buffalo's third straight defeat was hard to fathom.

Rasmus Ristolainen gift-wrapped a goal to Max Domi that woke up the sleeping Coyotes at 6:42 of the third period. Former Sabre Jamie McGinn tied it with 6:46 to go and Radim Vrbata's slapshot from the left point with 18.9 seconds left whizzed through a bunch of bodies to make a hard-luck loser out of stunned backup goaltender Anders Nilsson.

"They made a really good screen with a lot of bodies in front of the net," Nilsson said. "I wasn't able to see the puck."

It certainly rates as this franchise's most inexcusable loss since ... well, at least since before it was playing games hoping to lose.

"That one hurts. We needed that real bad and just didn't seal the deal," said Jack Eichel, who scored the game's first goal and assisted on Evan Rodrigues' tally at 9:53 of the second period to put the Sabres up, 2-0. "We sat back, let them take the play to us. We didn't try to play with the puck. We got rid of it too much. We got too passive and they took the play to us."

Asked if it was a game that felt worse than the average loss, coach Dan Bylsma couldn't disagree with the notion.

"Absolutely. Absolutely," Bylsma said slowly. "It's a desperation point in the season for us. Every one of these games is the biggest game of the year for us. It's disappointing to come up on the wrong end of this one."

So what happened in the third period? Sabres players said they were too passive and even Byslma agreed. Still, Buffalo had 14 shots on goal in the third period against Louis Domingue, who came into the game with a 3.38 goals against average. He stopped them all.

"These are the ones we need to have. We're just slowly giving our chances away. It's frustrating for all of us. I don't know what it is," Eichel said. "We sit back, let them take the puck to us. We're not forcing turnovers, not getting in on the forecheck. It feels like everyone is skating backwards. I think every single guy is at fault here."

That's certainly true on the winning goal. Zach Bogsian and Dmitry Kulikov were part of the screen brigade in front of Nilsson and Justin Bailey had dropped far too low from the point. Bailey tried to block the shot but it got through him and past a stunned Nilsson.

"We play good to get a lead and decide we're going to sit back. We don't push for that next goal enough," Eichel said. "So it's a dagger they score with 18 seconds left too. You come on a road trip, get no points.

Murray will have the final say on what direction this team goes next and he essentially will be fixing his own mess. It was Murray, remember, who built this terrible defense corps full of overpaid veterans.

And it's on Bylsma to use his lines better. Eichel was motoring in this one and played less than 16 minutes. The top line of Bailey, Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo did virtually nothing. Rodrigues scored for the second straight game and needs to play for more than nine minutes.

Trying to build a winning team doesn't happen just from  a couple high draft choices. Unless those choices are, say, Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews.

"You learn by going through it. We have gone through it," said veteran defenseman Josh Gorges. "Now it's up to us to have learned from those experiences. Enough to be said now at this time of year that you don't know what to expect with any situation we're faced with. We have to know how to play this time of year in these types of situations."

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