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Sabres continue to battle consistency issues

A 1-2-1 road trip, a 1-4-2 season record. The bottom lines for the Buffalo Sabres aren't pretty at this point.

The team's uneven jaunt to the West Coast ended late Tuesday night with a 5-4 overtime loss to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, a game that saw the Sabres wipe out a 4-1 deficit in the final 10 minutes of regulation.

It was a mostly disappointing performance that left coach Phil Housley stewing. And it was even more of a surprise, given how the team's play had gotten appreciably better on the trip's first three stops, culminating with Sunday's 3-1 win in Anaheim.

"We had a chance to build on something and I know this is a process but the process was a little broken tonight," Housley said after the contest in T-Mobile Arena. "The lack of preparation, accountability and urgency to start the game the way we finished was lacking."

The Sabres took Wednesday off and will return to practice Thursday in HarborCenter. They host Vancouver Friday in KeyBank Center, with no real idea which version of their team will show up.

It's the conundrum of the early portions of the Sabres' season. They skated well and had 45 shots on goal in their season-opening shootout loss to Montreal. Then they got pounded by the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils, giving up six goals in back-to-back games.

Out West, some elements of the Sabres' game fell apart from time to time. Defensemen struggled. The penalty kill went 0 for 3 in Los Angeles, including the game-winning goal that came with two minutes left. But General Manager Jason Botterill liked some of the perseverance he saw as well.

"Our compete level and response to getting on the road was very good," Botterill told The News prior to Tuesday's game. "We had opportunities in San Jose and LA to win games but didn't get the results. Our play was going in a positive direction even though it was a difficult loss on Saturday in LA.

"The fact that Phil and the players were able to rebound and stay focused for the game on Sunday showed some mental toughness in the group and we were certainly happy to get that win."

The Sabres found more of that toughness in Vegas, getting two of their three power-play goals to spark the comeback and finally tying the game on Evander Kane's goal with 8.9 seconds left in regulation.

"We can't take periods off and shifts off," Kane said afterward. "We just played the way we need to play. Unfortunately it took until the third period to get in the right mindset as a group.

"Put pucks on net, to forecheck with five, to get our 'D' to get aggressive. We basically played in the zone the entire period, when we were moving our feet and not being slow like we were in the second."

Late comeback in OT loss to Golden Knights is teachable moment for Sabres

The Sabres outshot Vegas, 17-6, in the third period. Kane finished with a three-point night to push his season total to 10, which entered Wednesday two off the league-leading total of 12 shared by Tampa Bay teammates Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.

"Phil has spent a lot of time trying to develop relationships with Evander and some of the core players and that's been paying off," Botterill said. "From day one of training camp, Evander has been great. You're seeing what he's capable of in all aspects of the game. He's been doing everything the coaching staff has asked him."

Well, maybe not everything. Kane had a run of penalties in Los Angeles and Anaheim that included his offensive zone trip with 2:04 left that led to the Kings' game-winning goal four seconds later.

The Sabres' solid victory over the Ducks made them the second-last team in the league to get a win this year and Botterill said he felt the team needed to see some rewards with its play.

"You're excited for Phil and the players," he said. "Phil has talked to them about things that need to improve and you want them to be rewarded for their response. Frankly, it was a relief to people within the organization. The fact that they're listening to Phil is really good. There's a buy-in but you have to get the results."

Botterill is still in observation mode with his team, even as it lingers in the bottom three clubs of the NHL's overall standing. Zach Bogosian has yet to play in a game this season and his injury has hampered the defense. Jacob Josefson and Zemgus Girgensons were lost in the last two games on the road for undetermined periods, leading to the recall of Justin Bailey, who scored the first goal in Anaheim.

Botterill has taken a conservative approach with the Sabres' roster, keeping Bailey in Rochester to start the season along with fellow prospects like Nick Baptiste and Brendan Guhle. None of them showed much at training camp, other than the need for more AHL seasoning, but it could have been tempting to simply keep them in the NHL over the likes of Josefson, Seth Griffith or Matt Tennyson.

"You're not just hoping they play in the National Hockey League. You're hoping they play a bigger role," Botterill said. "To me, there's such a focus on making a team opening night. We put too much of an emphasis on that in this sport right now. You look back at the end of the year and I want to see your total contribution to Buffalo over the season.

"I give a guy like Justin Bailey credit. He went down and gave our team a spark the first night there with two goals. The challenge is to maintain that intensity and level of play."

The same can be said for the entire team.

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