Rasmus Ristolainen did not see Jason Pominville until it was too late. The two Buffalo Sabres collided in the neutral zone during the third period, sending Pominville to the ice and causing Ristolainen to circle back to help his teammate to the bench.
"Obviously you know I didn't see him," Ristolainen said in a quiet locker room Tuesday night.
The devastating hit that forced Pominville from the game is one of several moments from the third period that will haunt the Sabres. They allowed four goals in the final 20 minutes, including one on a penalty shot, in a 5-2 loss to the last-place Florida Panthers inside KeyBank Center.
The meltdown occurred after Buffalo controlled play for the first 40 minutes. Jeff Skinner scored his 25th goal of the season and Ristolainen scored to give the Sabres a one-goal lead after two periods. However, they unraveled in the first five minutes of the third to drop a seventh consecutive game to the Panthers.
Instead of holding a two-game win streak entering a Friday primetime matchup with Washington, the Sabres are left wondering how another inferior opponent embarrassed them on home ice.
"Obviously, it’s not acceptable, but [we need] more desperation in our game," Skinner said afterward. "I think that’s what we want to get to. We have to stick with it and keep on it. It’s tough. You can talk about it, but you have to go out there to do it. You have to find a way late in games to get big plays."
The Sabres, now 20-10-5 with 45 points, fell back into third place in the Atlantic Division with Toronto's victory over New Jersey. This was their first regulation loss this season when leading after two periods and was similar to when they allowed six unanswered goals in a 6-2 loss to Philadelphia on Dec. 8.
Entering Tuesday, Florida had a negative-19 goal differential in the third period and was without two of its top three centermen. The Sabres were playing their fifth game in eight days, including a back-to-back in Washington and Boston over the weekend.
That didn't affect them at puck drop. Skinner scored 3:48 into the game on a centering pass from Jack Eichel, as both players extended their point streaks to seven games. Carter Hutton, who made 31 saves, was outstanding in the first period and each of Buffalo's four lines were generating scoring chances.
That success continued into the second period, but the Panthers tied the score 9:17 in when Jared McCann's shot bounced off the rear boards and out front to Troy Brouwer, who shot the puck off Hutton for a goal. The Sabres regained the lead less than two minutes later when Ristolainen rushed through the right circle and beat Roberto Luongo with a short-side wrist shot.
However, bad habits began to creep into the Sabres' play. Frustrated by Luongo making a number of outstanding saves, the Sabres began attempting daring plays in the neutral zone and were passing in the offensive zone instead of taking open shots.
"We have an opportunity to close things out and it didn’t happen," coach Phil Housley said. "We have to feel comfortable in that position. We don’t have to do anything special. Take what the game gives us. It’s just a game of mistakes."
Florida, on the other hand, chose to keep shooting pucks at Hutton.
That simple strategy helped Florida score three goals in 3:44. First, Barkov deflected Keith Yandle's shot from the point for a power-play goal 58 seconds into the third to tie the score. Evgenii Dadonov earned a breakaway after stealing the puck from Rasmus Dahlin at the blue line, and Dahlin tripped him for a penalty shot.
Dadonov capitalized when his shot rolled through Hutton's legs for the one-goal lead. Frank Vatrano then made it 4-2 with his backhanded shot after beating Marco Scandella to the front of the net, and with 14:04 remaining, Ristolainen collided with Pominville, whose status was unknown after the game. Dadonov added an empty-net goal with 2:30 left secure a Florida win.
"I thought they just wanted it more than us," Eichel said. "We have to figure out a way to just stick with it, whether or not we get that next goal in the first five minutes. … We can’t change our game. I thought maybe we did that a little bit. Got too cute."
The ugly loss did not negate all the Sabres have accomplished. They are 7-4-2 against the Atlantic Division and are six wins shy of surpassing their total from all of last season. Their first-half success gives them some room for error, but the Sabres have been outshot 14 times in their last 20 games and again received no help from their bottom-nine forwards.
"I don’t think the desperation was there," Eichel said. "They were definitely desperate. They played hard in their own end, but I don’t think we outworked them. Give them credit. They played a really good third period. We weren’t good enough."