PHILADELPHIA – Casey Mittelstadt, along with three of his Buffalo Sabres teammates, stood around their own net as Philadelphia Flyers winger Jakub Voracek took two whacks at a loose puck.
The second jarred the puck past Carter Hutton for a two-goal lead less than eight minutes into an important game with playoff position on the line, and the Sabres never recovered.
"Just have to have better communication," Mittelstadt lamented after a 5-2 loss to the Flyers in Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday night. "I think that's what it comes down to."
Mittelstadt, a 20-year-old rookie, was caught out of position after skating toward Claude Giroux in the right-wing circle. He was not the only Buffalo player at fault.
The Sabres (29-26-8) had two additional breakdowns around their own net, and those familiar lapses allowed Philadelphia (30-26-7) to leapfrog them in the Eastern Conference standings. Buffalo is now eight points back of the second wild-card playoff spot.
"I just thought they came out with more intensity than us, more desperation," Jack Eichel said. "From the first shift, I didn’t think we were ready to play."
The Flyers had an odd-man rush less than a minute into the game, and Johan Larsson was penalized for hooking Nolan Patrick during the first shift.
Though the Sabres killed the penalty, poor communication allowed Oskar Lindblom to score for a 1-0 lead less than three minutes in. Lindblom had space when he received a pass next to the Sabres' net, and Marco Scandella opted to try to cut off a possible cross-slot pass rather than trying to prevent Lindblom from shooting at Hutton.
But Larsson had the other side of the net covered and Lindblom was given enough room to lift a puck over Hutton's shoulder. Less than eight minutes later, Mittelstadt skated slowly over to try to challenge Giroux's shot.
The shot hit Hutton and four Sabres players watched as Voracek shot his own rebound into the net for a 2-0 Flyers lead.
"It’s just about taking your guy," Sabres coach Phil Housley explained. "‘Take him, I’ve got him.’ Just bring clarity to the situation. We’ve got too many guys standing around in front of our net whacking at pucks, and it’s just about picking up and being tougher to play against in that area."
A similar situation occurred on the Flyers' third goal when James Van Riemsdyk snuck behind new Sabres defenseman Brandon Montour in front of the net and deflected Robert Hagg's shot for a 3-1 lead at 15:13 into the second period.
Travis Sanheim made it 4-2 when he scored on an odd-man rush 46 seconds into the third period, and Giroux added an empty-net goal with 2:55 remaining after Rasmus Dahlin collided with Michael Raffl near the Flyers' blue line.
Hutton stopped 40 of 44 shots one night after he was pulled in the second period of a 5-2 loss in Toronto. The Sabres were outshot, 19-6, in the first 20 minutes.
The Sabres finished 36 shots on goal and Eichel scored again, his 22nd of the season, to cut the deficit to one goal at 12:08 into the second period. They also received secondary scoring from Mittelstadt, whose one-time shot off a pass from Evan Rodrigues made it 3-2 after 40 minutes.
Buffalo had 30 shots over the final two periods and probably deserved more than two goals, but Flyers goalie Brian Elliott made a number of outstanding saves, including his stop on Jeff Skinner early in the third period.
"It was an important game for us, but we’re going to stick together in here," Mittelstadt said. "With the group of guys we’ve got, it’s pretty special. We’re going to keep fighting no matter what happens. It definitely doesn’t feel good, but we’re going to stick together for sure."
Still, the Sabres looked slow in their own zone and allowed too many odd-man rushes against an opponent that traded one of its best offensive threats -- Wayne Simmonds -- before Monday's deadline.
Eichel refused to blame inexperience, adding that he felt the Sabres' younger players fared well against Philadelphia. Housley would not say how his team was not ready to play in a game so important. Now, all involved are wondering how they can salvage their season with only 19 games remaining.
"I think it’s just disappointing because it’s a game of mistakes and right now we’re making more mistakes than the other team," Housley added. "I still like the fight in our group, though. Sticking together and finding until the end. But we can’t be chasing or trading chances with teams. That’s not our game."