ST. LOUIS -- You can't accuse the Buffalo Sabres of too much holiday cheer. Not the way they played in the first period Thursday night.
The Sabres were skating well, hard on the puck and dominating play in the St. Louis Blues' zone. But they went to the locker room in a scoreless tie and any momentum they had was gone.
St. Louis, the underachieving 13th-place team in the Western Conference, blitzed Buffalo with three goals in the second period and old friend Ryan O'Reilly capped the night's indignity with the clinching goal in the third as the Sabres suffered a 4-1 loss in Enterprise Center.
The Sabres had 31 shots on goal in the game but didn't have a whole lot of quality scoring chances against Jake Allen, especially in the final 40 minutes after they outshot the Blues, 10-6, in the first. Jack Eichel scored their only goal in the second period and no one else connected as secondary scoring remains a crisis.
"We've got to find a way," said coach Phil Housley. "And I'll continue to say it: If you want to score in this league, you're going to have to get dirty once in a while and you're going to have to go to the net. It's going to get harder as we move forward here. That's a challenge for us."
"I just didn't think stuff was clean tonight," Eichel said. "We were sloppy, chasing things a bit. We really never established our game after the first. You just move on. We have to learn from this game and we will."
Goalie Carter Hutton, returning to meet his old teammates, was fretting goals by Robert Thomas and Patrick Maroon that went into the net off his body as St. Louis had 19 of the game's 23 shot attempts in the first 11 minutes of the second period.
But in the bigger picture, Hutton is growing increasingly frustrated. He's just 1-4-1 in December with a 2.67 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. He has lost three straight, with the Sabres totaling just four goals in that trio of games.
"You try to battle to keep it there but when you're not getting run support, you try to do a little too much," Hutton said. "I've just got to get back to doing my thing. I can't control what we do at the other end but I need to be better. Four goals is unacceptable."
There wasn't much Hutton could do on O'Reilly's clincher at 13:47 of third, his team-high 14th goal of the season. O'Reilly neatly chipped the puck around Zemgus Girgensons and got in alone on Hutton, beating the goalie clean to the blocker side.
O'Reilly had four shots on goal and was plus-2 in the game. And did the goal have extra meaning?
"Oh, absolutely," he said. "It's a big game for us in general, coming off the break and trying to get back into the hunt here. Especially against a team like that being traded from, it always means a bit more. It feels really good to win that one."
— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) December 28, 2018
The Sabres flew here in the morning after the holiday break, and the compressed gameday schedule left O'Reilly no time for catchup with his ex-mates aside from a few on-ice chit-chats during warmup. After that, it was all business.
"It was kind of nice to put the nail in the coffin," O'Reilly said. "Having that two-goal lead and kind of getting late there, it didn't solidify the win, but it just kind of as a team, we were like, 'OK, we got this here.' We were putting them away, especially against them too. Finding a way to get a big goal like that to seal the deal, it felt really good."
O'Reilly got the last word on his matchup with Eichel's line, which still managed to get nine shots on goal. O'Reilly was at 61 percent in the faceoff circle (11-7) while Eichel only went 5-8.
"I thought our line generated a lot to be honest," Eichel said. "Obviously it's tough in the faceoff dot. He makes it hard on you to win. I was trying to change up on him a little bit, do different things to throw him off a bit. But give him credit. They checked well even though we had chances."