A precedent appeared to be set. The Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins got away with some borderline penalties for most of the third period Saturday night in KeyBank Center, including an ugly trip that forced Sam Reinhart to skate slowly to the bench.
That's why the Sabres were puzzled and frustrated when Rasmus Ristolainen was penalized for kneeing with 3:43 left in regulation. The Bruins scored the tying power-play goal 74 seconds later and won in overtime, 3-2, when Sean Kuraly capitalized on his own rebound to beat Carter Hutton.
"That was a pretty tough call at the end," Sabres winger Evan Rodrigues lamented of Ristolainen's penalty. 'They were kind of letting things go, I thought, from the last half of the third."
As a result, the Sabres, now 21-12-6 with 48 points, have only a two-point lead over the Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division and failed to gain ground on Toronto. Jake DeBrusk scored the tying goal and Kuraly won it with 1:16 remaining in overtime.
That left Buffalo wondering what could have been. It failed to score on the power play in overtime and again failed to build on a one-goal lead. While the result was a second consecutive loss, the Sabres were encouraged with how they responded following an ugly performance in St. Louis two nights earlier.
"Completely different game," defenseman Marco Scandella said. "That St. Louis game was not our game, was not our identity. Tonight we responded well. ... Still, it’s not good enough, and we have to get the win at home."
The Sabres finally received some secondary scoring. Johan Larsson scored a go-ahead shorthanded goal 5:43 into the second period, and Scandella's second goal of the season made it 1-0 in the first. Simply put, they were the better team for most of the first 40 minutes and had a one-goal lead entering the third period.
The Bruins, who were without Brad Marchand, Charlie McAvoy and David Backes, had yet to win this season when trailing after two periods. The Sabres had a botched 2-on-1 odd-man rush. Vladimir Sobotka was stopped by Tuukka Rask on a shot from the top of the crease. A puck nearly deflected off Jason Pominville's skate and into the goal early in the third period.
It was another game of what ifs. At the other end of the ice, Buffalo allowed too many scoring chances. The Bruins, now 21-14-4 with 46 points, outshot the Sabres, 42-28, including 18-5 in the third period, and had 24 more shot attempts.
"I thought we played a very strong 60 minutes and overtime," coach Phil Housley said. "I can’t fault our effort. We attacked the game. It’s going to be like this throughout the rest of the season where it’s going to be tight. I thought we felt really comfortable in the situation."
The Sabres' penalty kill had been 30-for-31 when Ristolainen's knee collided with David Pastrnak, despite the Buffalo defenseman trying to avoid making contact. The sequence began when Jeff Skinner failed to get the puck out of the defensive zone.
"It’s a tough call," Rodrigues, who assisted on Larsson's goal, said. "I just thought that’s one that got away from us. At the same time, if we keep playing like that we’ll win some games."
With 3:29 remaining in regulation, Torey Krug carried the puck toward the middle of the blue line and fired a wrist shot that was deflected by DeBrusk past Hutton, who made 39 saves.
Buffalo did not threaten after that. Boston controlled play for the final two minutes, and Skinner drew an interference penalty 34 seconds into overtime. However, the Sabres' impatience led to a missed opportunity and they had only two shots on goal in overtime. Kuraly collected a pass from Matt Grzelcyk in the neutral zone, skated up ice and fired a wrist shot on Hutton.
Neither Rasmus Dahlin nor Skinner could clear the rebound from in front of the net, and Kuraly chipped it past Hutton for the game-winner.
The Sabres are 4-6-4 since their 10-game winning streak ended on Nov. 29 and continue to struggle to score. Though Hutton has not won in his last five games, he has received only nine goals from his teammates during that span. Kyle Okposo has not scored a goal in 21 games. Casey Mittelstadt has one goal in 16 games. Conor Sheary has one goal in 19 games.
"It’s always tough to lose, but they're in the division," Larsson said. "Those are huge points. Yeah, it’s a tough one."