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Slide to division cellar an ugly way for Sabres to finish

TAMPA -- Good riddance to this Buffalo Sabres season.

One of the most disappointing campaigns in the history of a franchise that dates to 1970 ended abruptly Sunday night with a 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Amalie Arena.

Brayden Point's second goal of the game, a fluke shot that deflected off Rasmus Ristolainen past Linus Ullmark with 1:24 left, snapped a tie and sent Buffalo into the offseason with its fifth loss over the final six games.

The Blue and Gold went 33-37-12 for 78 points, three fewer than last year. With their front office, coaching staff and fan base thinking playoffs all summer, the Sabres were a complete flop much of the winter and spring.

Coupled with Detroit's win over New Jersey in the Joe Louis Arena finale, the Sabres slipped one point below the Red Wings to finish dead last in the Atlantic Division. Worse yet, they were 15th in the Eastern Conference and 26th overall, a big drop from last year's 23rd.

A last-place finish in the division seemed inconceivable when the season began in October -- even with Jack Eichel out after his severe ankle sprain.

What would the Sabres have said if you had told them in October they would finish in the Atlantic cellar?

"I would have said, 'You need to look for a new job,' cracked winger Evander Kane.

"I wouldn't have believed you and I wouldn't have thought that in the least bit," added coach Dan Bylsma.

The Sabres were one point out of the playoffs after a Feb. 18 win over St. Louis improved their record to 26-23-10. They went 7-14-2 the rest of the way to kill their hopes and clearly leave the fate of their second-year coach dangling in the hands of General Manager Tim Murray and owner Terry Pegula as the offseason begins minus the playoffs for a sixth straight year.

"It's a big disappointment where we were going, the direction we were headed in," said Bylsma, who directed a 27-point turnaround last year in his debut season in Buffalo. "You come up with the standings flipped and you're on the bottom. It's not a good feeling."

"It's weird. We finished last but like three weeks ago you felt you were 5-6 points out with 15 games left," said Kane, who forged a 2-2 tie with 8:43 left on his team-high 28th goal of the season. "There was just a lot of movement. It's obviously where we didn't envision ourselves. I'm sure there will be some changes and some looking in the mirror all around."

When it was over, most players followed standard road game procedure by hurriedly removing their equipment and stuffing the gear into their large duffel bags so they could make a quick beeline for the flight home. Eichel, however, sat slumped in his locker, in full uniform minus his skates for several minutes.

Goaltender Robin Lehner came over, tapped him on the leg and extended his hand without a word. The two shook on it hard as Lehner moved out of the room and Eichel finally began the process of moving on.

Eichel has said plenty about the disappointment of the season in the last few days and there was no new territory to broach with him on this night. A Tampa reporter approached him and Eichel said simply, "we found a way to lose" before calmly declining to answer further questions.

There wasn't much more for Eichel to say. He ended with 24 goals for the second straight year and 57 points, one more than last year in 20 fewer games. Eichel had just one goal and one assist over the final six games and he wasn't alone in his struggles through that stretch.

Sam Reinhart had just one goal in the last 12 games and one point over the last five. Kane had three goals and an assist in the last 12. Ryan O'Reilly had a goal and an assist over the last six. Ristolainen had a goal and an assist over his last 10.

The Sabres were hoping to get a playoff-like taste here Sunday if Tampa Bay needed the game to qualify. But Toronto's victory Saturday night eliminated the Lightning, who still played in front of a sellout crowd but one that wasn't jazzed like it could have been.

"Mentally, it's been very difficult," Kane said. "The last three weeks we've known we're out of it. We were battling through. I know some of us were hoping this game here would mean a little more but that wasn't the case. Another year of not being where we want to be."

"That's been difficult on everybody with that realization and feeling like you aren't meeting expectations," Bylsma said. "You play these last few games with that kind of heaped on your shoulders."

Asked if it was oddly appropriate the final game was lost on a fluky own-goal, Bylsma exhaled heavily and showed the stress of the season when he quietly said, 'Yeah, it feels that way. It feels that way."

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