PHILADELPHIA — Consistency. It's been the most elusive element of the Buffalo Sabres game as they've struggled to find their footing this season.
Consistency continued to be the problem in Wells Fargo Center Thursday night as a hot start ended up in a 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Sabres had a strong first period, scoring just 1:29 into the game when a hard forecheck by Zemgus Girgensons won him the puck behind the net from Flyers' goalie Brian Elliott. He fed it to Ryan O'Reilly who finished in front of an open net for a 1-0 lead.
While the Flyers tied it two and a half minutes later, the Sabres still held the advantage in even strength play. They had long shifts in the Philadelphia zone. They got to the puck to the net. They created turnovers. They created scoring chances. It felt as if they building toward something good.
"I thought we had our chances," Sabres forward Jack Eichel said. "I don't think our execution was where it should be. We let them off the hook a few times where we had cycles and long shifts in their end. You know, it's a tough one. We thought we could have come in here and get two points and we didn't get anything. There's some good and there's some stuff we want to clean up."
The first period was the good stuff.
But the second period, that was the game changer.
For all the good the Sabres did in the first period, particularly in the offensive zone, they fell back into the bad habit of getting away from the game plan in the second. The Flyers came out with a strong counterpunch, but the Buffalo dressing room felt it was their lack of response which allowed Philadelphia to gain control of the game.
With the score tied, 1-1, the Flyers outshot the Sabres, 14-6, in the second period. Buffalo couldn't set up in the offensive zone, couldn't get through the neutral zone, and found themselves hemmed in their own end. That's how Valtteri Filppula scored at 17:27 of the second, jumping into an open space in the slot and tapping in a pass from Jakub Voracek for the lead.
"I thought we did a pretty good job in the first," Girgensons said. "We had a lot of o-zone time. Then in the second we kinda started making the same mistakes we've sometimes been making. Those turnovers in the neutral zone and they took advantage of those. That was the difference I thought."
"We lost the game in the second period," O'Reilly said. "It took too much out of us. We were chasing the puck too much. We couldn't get into a rhythm. It starts with myself. I've got to shorten my shifts, do little details better. It was too tough. You could tell by the third we were pretty gassed."
But the biggest letdown in the consistency area was finding the ability to finish plays.
Even with the reduced zone time and fewer shots in the second and third period, the Sabres had plenty of scoring opportunities. Sam Reinhart had an open net with a wraparound but missed. Evander Kane had two outstanding opportunities — one on an odd-man shorthanded break in the second and then on a strong pass from Evan Rodrigues late in the third when he was all alone to the right of Elliott but couldn't find the open space. Marco Scandella also had an open net, skating hard to the far post on a rush, but tipping the puck wide of yet another open net.
"It wasn't a matter of us not getting the chances," coach Phil Housley said. "I mean we had some great looks. We had open nets. We didn't finish and that's part of the execution.
"If you look at the chances we had, we had open nets and we didn't elevate the puck," Housley said. "Goalies in this league now are going to seal the low part of the net and you've got to elevate. We could have had a two-goal lead right after we got the first goal. We could have had a two-goal lead and then it puts a little more pressure on them."
But the pressure is back on the Sabres to see how they respond to their first loss since Dec. 2 to the Penguins in Pittsburgh. The loss snapped a four-game point streak for the Sabres who had started to find their game.
"It's unfortunate because we've built something here in the last four games," Housley said. "I thought we could have taken another step tonight against a good hockey team but we didn't execute."