New York Rangers winger Pavel Buchnevich was left alone in front of the net and one-timed Kevin Hayes' pass for an insurance goal, sending much of the sold-out KeyBank Center crowd to the exits late in the third period Friday night.
The puck was in the back of the net before Linus Ullmark could even attempt to make a save, a sequence that powerfully illustrated all that has gone wrong for the Buffalo Sabres since their 10-game winning streak ended Nov. 29.
After allowing five goals over their previous three games, the Sabres capped their seven-game homestand with an ugly 6-2 loss to the Rangers. Neither Jeff Skinner nor Jack Eichel could explain how they have failed to win back-to-back games since Dec. 11-13, leaving them four points back of the second-wild card spot at 28-22-7.
Phil Housley, visibly frustrated during his postgame news conference, said his players were outworked during another poor defensive performance.
"We don’t have time to wait around," the Sabres' coach lamented. "That’s what’s disappointing about this game, because everything we did well, even though we didn’t get the result against Winnipeg, we feel we’re going to attack the game tonight. ... We just let them roam and now we’re just riding our checks and it just looks like we’re soft."
The Sabres outshot the Rangers, 33-29, and had 20 more shot attempts. Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin each hit the post, and New York had only one shot on goal during the first seven minutes of the third period.
Skinner scored two goals, his 35th and 36th of the season, to twice cut the deficit to one goal. The Sabres were the better team for parts of the third period, yet they again struggled to protect their own net.
Buffalo started slow and never recovered. Boo Nieves scored 4:09 into the game when Marco Scandella turned the puck over, and neither Kyle Okposo nor Johan Larsson could clear it from the slot. Okposo left the game and did not return following a third-period fight with Tony DeAngelo.
Hemmed in their own zone, the Sabres failed to clear traffic from in front of the net, leading to Jesper Fast's goal for a 2-0 lead at 14:03. Skinner scored 53 seconds into the second period, only for the Rangers to answer 58 seconds later when Lawrence Pilut could not pry the puck away from Buchnevich in the corner and Jimmy Vesey beat Jake McCabe to the net to make it 3-1.
"Guys are trying to do the right thing," Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian, who missed the prevoius two games with a lower-body injury, said. "It just wasn’t the way we needed to start."
Skinner scored a power-play goal with 3:04 left in the second period, and the Sabres had several opportunities to tie the game in the third. Rangers goalie Alexandar Georgiev made 13 saves in the final 20 minutes, including one on a Dahlin one-timer and two stops on Tage Thompson shots from the slot.
Their momentum was gone when Dahlin turned the puck over, and Hayes skated around to the right-wing faceoff circle. He fooled the Sabres with a shot pass, finding Buchnevich, who was parked to Ullmark's right, to make it 4-2 with 4:01 remaining.
"It’s very disappointing because I feel we were taking a step in the right direction," Housley said. "We were trending in a good direction. You have to understand desperation at this time of the season and every shift counts, every play counts. The details of the game count."
The Rangers scored eight seconds later when Ullmark misplayed the puck behind the net, allowing Vladislav Namestnikov to score on an empty net. Namestnikov then added an actual empty-net goal with 58 seconds remaining in regulation.
The Sabres were outscored, 28-22, during the homestand and allowed four or more goals in four games. They seemed to have solved their defensive woes in their previous three games – including a 3-1 win over the New York Islanders Tuesday night – but looked sluggish Friday night.
"It’s a tough league," Skinner explained. "You have to bring it every night. You can’t have lapses for five minutes, 10 minutes in games. I think that’s sort of been a theme."
In addition to their usual turnovers, the Sabres allowed the Rangers to cycle the puck at ease. Their breakout passes weren't clean because forwards did not circle back to support the defensemen. They didn't forecheck well, either.
New York (25-28-8), which began the day 11 points out of a playoff spot, gave the Sabres time and space for open shots on Georgiev. However, Buffalo did not forecheck well, which allowed the Rangers to quickly break the puck out. Nine different Sabres had a minus-2 rating or worse.
The Sabres will practice Saturday before embarking on a three-game road trip to New Jersey, Florida and Tampa Bay, and now trail Carolina by three points. Their 22-year-old captain was not sure why consistency has eluded a team that won 10 games in a row more than two months ago.
"It’s tough," Eichel said. "It’s tough to really pinpoint right now."