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With Pegulas in the house, fragile Sabres collapse again in loss to Panthers

SUNRISE, Fla. — When their team's latest disgrace was over, Buffalo Sabres owner/CEO Terry Pegula, owner/President Kim Pegula and General Manager Jason Botterill grimly and briskly walked together through a hall in BB&T Center and into a room in the team's dressing room tunnel. The owners live in nearby Boca Raton and don't always get to see the team in person.

Well, they got to see the full Sabres experience in the third period Tuesday night.

Bad puck management. Bad decisions. Shoddy defense. An ill-timed mistake from a goaltender. Deer-in-the-headlights coaching. It was all there.

The Pegulas have to be wondering what their coach and players are doing. What their general manager isn't doing. And what it's going to be like for yet another spring without their team in the playoffs, unless something major changes in the next 23 games.

The latest atrocity was a a 4-2 loss to the Florida Panthers in a game that saw Buffalo get torched for all four goals in the final 17 minutes. Three of them came in a span of 5:43 early in the period.

The Sabres (28-24-7) have lost three straight and are 7-11-1 since Jan. 1. Worst yet, they are 11-18-5 since their 10-game winning streak ended in November.

You read that right. The Sabres won 10 games in a row in November — and have won 11 games since.

They're somehow still only six points out of the last Eastern conference wild-card slot, now owned by Columbus, but it seems like the race is hopeless.

Unless Botterill has something major planned prior to Monday's trade deadline, he's sat by and watched a sure playoff berth go by the boards without doing anything about it.

And after the latest collapse, there was a stark admission from captain Jack Eichel.

"I think right now, yeah, we're a fragile group for sure," said Eichel, who had given Buffalo a 1-0 lead through 40 minutes with a power-play goal in the second period. "It's a tough stretch for us, without a doubt, and it just seems like things are going the opposite way that they were. It's an uphill climb for us.

"Whenever you go through this type of stretch, it doesn't matter how much you've played or what your experience is. I think you start thinking about things. It's human nature."

The Wraparound: Florida Panthers 4, Buffalo Sabres 2

A defiant defenseman Jake McCabe wasn't hearing the notion that it seems like the Sabres have nothing left in their tank to make any sort of run.

"You can say that but we're right there still," McCabe said. "There's however many games left in the season. We won 10 in a row before. Why not again? You know what I mean? We believe that in here.

"Outside sources, we don't really give a ... what you guys say. We have a strong group in here. We're going to keep building and keep working to get out of this rut."

Coach Phil Housley, getting more embattled by the day, pushed the postgame narrative that his team is developing young players. And he's got a point where you're talking names like Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittelstadt, Linus Ullmark, Tage Thompson and Lawrence Pilut.

The youngsters struggled at key times in this one. Mittelstadt's turnover led to Florida's go-ahead goal by Jayce Hawryluk at 3:50 of the third period. Aleksander Barkov put the puck between his own legs to get around Dahlin and pushed it meekly through Ullmark's pads for a terrible goal to make it 3-1 at 5:42.

But there are plenty of guys in this dressing room who have played several hundred games in the NHL. Even relatively young players like Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen are all in at least their fourth year in the league.

Eichel's line with Jason Pominville and Jeff Skinner were all minus-3 in the game. Ristolainen was minus-2. Those aren't kids.

"I believe in the group," Housley insisted. "I like our game at times. It's just mistakes. We're developing young players right now. We have to keep fighting and pushing.

"Like I said, we've got to keep believing in each other. There's a lot of belief in that room. We believe as a coaching staff in this group and we've just got to find a way to get it done."

But Housley seems to have no answers. The Sabres were completely flat offensively in the first period, played aggressively in the second and then collapsed in their own zone in the third.

"It's disappointing for sure," McCabe said. "We played a really good second period after a subpar first. It's beyond frustrating we let that one slip away, especially the position we're in now."

And especially with a game at league-leading Tampa Bay coming on Thursday night. Just under three months ago, the Sabres were first overall in the NHL and a point ahead of the Lightning. They'll enter Thursday's game 33 points behind them.

"Nobody feels sorry for us," McCabe said. "Nobody else around the league is looking at us and saying, 'Oh, the poor Buffalo Sabres.' We're the only ones that are going to get out of this. "

The general manager could jump start his club, too. Botterill still has time. But while his silence to date has been deafening, his team's crash in the standings has been emphatic.

By the way, one other note that occurred shortly after the Sabres finished: The St. Louis Blues set a franchise record by winning their 11th straight game Tuesday with a 3-2 overtime victory over Toronto.

Who scored the winning goal? Some guy named Ryan O'Reilly. The loser who was given all the blame for last season and sent packing by the GM.

O'Reilly's overtime tally gave him 23 goals and 61 points, one shy of his goal total and equal his point total of last season in Buffalo. He's gone from minus-23 last season to plus-25 this year.

Guess it wasn't his fault after all.

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