BOSTON – When Rasmus Dahlin lost control of the puck in the Buffalo Sabres' defensive zone Saturday night, all he could do was hope Linus Ullmark would make a spectacular save.
Boston Bruins winger Noel Acciari poked the loose puck toward Chris Wagner, whose shot went over Ullmark's glove and into the net to make the sold-out TD Garden crowd roar in the first period.
Ullmark's job did not get easier. The Sabres allowed too many scoring chances and could not generate enough offense without Jack Eichel, falling to the Bruins, 2-1, in the Atlantic Division rivals' final meeting of the season.
The Sabres (22-14-6) fell two points behind third-place Boston (24-14-4) and are only one point ahead of Montreal for the second wild-card spot. The score was not indicative of how Buffalo played.
Though Rasmus Ristolainen scored with 2:38 remaining in regulation, the Sabres allowed 41 shots on goal and were thoroughly outplayed during the second period.
"We’ve played well here and there, then we [stink] in other ones," Ristolainen lamented. "It’s hard to win in this league, and the games are only going to get tougher. We have to bring it every night, every day and every practice."
Ullmark, making his second consecutive start, made 39 saves, including 14 in the second period. Wagner made it 1-0 with his goal 10:10 into the first period after Dahlin lost his footing and turned the puck over in the slot. Bruins winger David Backes made it a two-goal lead by scoring during a 2-on-1 odd-man rush two minutes into the second period.
Ullmark made a number of outstanding saves to keep the Sabres in the game, including his stops on two one-time shots in the first period. It was an uncharacteristically poor showing by his defensemen.
Dahlin accounted for five of Buffalo's 16 turnovers – three more than any of his teammates – and played like an overwhelmed rookie for stretches. His veteran teammates did not fare much better. Jake McCabe was caught deep in the offensive zone when Backes scored, and Zach Bogosian's third-period turnover gave the Bruins another 2-on-1, though Brad Marchand's shot went wide.
"Obviously, we gave up too many grade-A chances," Bogosian said. "I think as a five-man unit we didn’t defend very well tonight."
Additionally, the Sabres' forwards struggled to break the puck out of the defensive zone because of Boston's forechecking and could not sustain possession when they managed to get the puck deep into the Bruins' end.
The Sabres were outshot, 12-1, for the first 7:42 of the second period and went 7:16 without recording a shot on goal. They responded with seven shots on goal in the final six minutes of the second, only to be denied by Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, who made a glove save on Jeff Skinner's drive to the net with just over a minute remaining.
"I think it’s really a recognition of how the games are going to be moving forward," Sabres coach Phil Housley said. "It’s a 60-minute effort. We can’t lay our foot off the gas pedal, and we’re going to need everybody. Everybody has to be pulling the rope each and every game. That's going to be really important because it is important to our team and our group."
Buffalo could not score on a pair of 2-on-1 odd-man rushes during the third period, though Skinner managed to get a shot on net both times. It also could not score during a third-period power play because forwards were seemingly losing every battle to a loose puck.
Housley's decision to move Casey Mittelstadt to center the top line during the third period seemed to spark the offense. However, the rest of the Sabres' forwards contributed little offensively in the final 20 minutes. Ristolainen scored when he collected a loose puck in the neutral zone, skated through the right-wing circle and shot above Rask's glove.
Buffalo has scored only 15 goals over its last eight games and has a negative-3 goal differential since its winning streak ended Nov. 29 in Tampa Bay.
"I just think our play in the neutral zone wasn’t very good," Bogosian said. "We have to get pucks deep and obviously turnovers lead to you playing defense the whole game."
The Sabres were able to defeat Florida, 4-3, Thursday by getting shots to the net from the blue line and creating traffic in front of the goalie. They weren't able to do either consistently against the Bruins. Bogosian, McCabe, Dahlin and Marco Scandella combined for two shots on goal. Nine players had one or fewer shots on goal.
Eichel, the Sabres' leading scorer with 49 points in 40 games this season, remains day-to-day and it's unclear if he will be back to face New Jersey on Tuesday in KeyBank Center. Though he is irreplaceable, the Sabres' disjointed play against the Bruins showed there are several problems that continue to plague Housley's team.
As a result, they have won only five of their last 17 games and are barely holding on to the second wild-card spot.
"That’s a pretty good hockey team there," Ristolainen said. "They know what they’re doing. They play their system pretty well. It’s a hard building to play in, and we just have to understand it’s not going to be easy for 60 minutes with us."