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Mike Harrington: They kept teasing us, but this loss is the end for the Sabres

TORONTO — Never mind.

That peek you took at the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night? Left you wondering what if, didn't it?

There was a lot of euphoria in KeyBank Center after that overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. It kept the Sabres on the outskirts of the playoff race. Of course, they needed a winning streak and that required success here Saturday in Scotiabank Arena.

Get a win here and maybe, just maybe, the Sabres find some glimmer of hope, get a streak going and stay in this thing. Especially with the schedule's degree of difficulty about to lighten up.

Nope.

Their 5-2 loss to the Maple Leafs was a horrible downer. Just too many things went wrong when chances were there to create a different outcome.

The Sabres can excuse-monger all they want. But the fact remains this season has been an embarrassment for more than three months. They're nine points out of the playoffs.

With no apologies to the point I made to Sam Reinhart a couple weeks ago in New Jersey, they're toast.

The Sabres are now 0-10-1 in their last 11 attempts to have a simple two-game winning streak. They're now 3-14-3 in their last 20 road games. Coach Phil Housley clearly dialed back on public criticism of his team after calling them "soft" following that ghastly loss to the New York Rangers a couple weeks ago, but he wasn't wrong.

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That was clearly said in anger after the defeat. You know what the old adage is: The immediate aftermath is often the truth serum.

The Sabres have lost four in a row to the Leafs. To their No. 1 rival. For the first time since 1971-72. That humilation clearly doesn't register enough with too many of these players.

"I've been fortunate to be on the good side of things for a while [against Toronto] but we've got to find a way to get that hate a little bit more, especially at home," said Jason Pominville, who has played more than 700 games with this organization. "We had a chance tonight but just weren't able to do it. We have to find a way to win a game against this team. I think everyone is well aware they're not a favorite."

It's yet another example of how the Leafs have flown light years ahead of Buffalo. Think of the Atlantic Division right now. How in the world are the Sabres ever going to catch up with Tampa Bay or Toronto? Boston seems ready to take a step back every year and never does. Now Montreal is vastly improved.

The Sabres basically go nose-to-nose with Florida and don't look likely to finish in front of a team that plays in a largely empty arena.

Think how maddening this team is. The last three home wins are over the New York Islanders, Washington and Pittsburgh. They can play every once in a while. But that's not remotely good enough in this league.

It's not only ridiculous to go nearly three months without winning two games in a row, it's downright laughable. It feels like the next time the Sabres might do it will be in October. As in next season.

"No, it doesn't feel like that at all," said captain Jack Eichel, laughing to mask his clear disgust at the topic being broached. "I don't know. I don't have an answer for you right now."

Fair enough. There isn't one answer. There's a host of them.

The Wraparound: Maple Leafs 5, Sabres 2

Here's a point fans should know about Eichel. He takes losing as seriously as you can. He sits at his stall after games. If the media wants him, he's available. Just about any night of the season.

A guy like Rasmus Ristolainen should volunteer to take the heat once in his career. Eichel does it three times a week.

The Sabres finally crumbled in the final five minutes of the second period as  Ristolainen, an alleged top-pair defenseman, was outworked for the puck by Trevor Moore and it was fed to newcomer Nic Petan for his first NHL goal of the season with either the Leafs or Winnipeg.

Ristolainen piled up another minus-2 night. That's minus-31 and counting, the worst figure of any player in the entire league. And yes, I realize plus-minus is considered a dopey stat these days. But worst in the league remains worst in the league.

There are moments in a career that can change a narrative. That goal feels like a coffin-nailer on Ristolainen's Buffalo career. Your top D man can't get toasted on the wall with the puck like that by a rookie fourth-line kid who's been with the Marlies most of the season.

For his part, Housley continues to not distinguish himself either and the continued collapse is going to squarely put more focus on his status. It seems crazy to fire yet another coach after two years but by the season finale April 6, Terry and Kim Pegula might have actually gone a few weeks without firing somebody and might have itchy trigger fingers again.

Housley blew it when he didn't issue a goalie interference challenge on Morgan Rielly's goal with 18.4 seconds left in the first period. Patrick Marleau was battling in front with Evan Rodrigues and might have been bumped toward the goalie but it seemed like his body contacted Linus Ullmark's glove.

That could have been a huge challenge. The way those calls go, goals are often wiped out. Instead, Housley took his timeout home on the bus with him. He said he didn't think it would be successful and he might want that timeout late in the game.

That's soft coaching, too.

What's left the rest of the season? Eichel is going for 30 goals and Skinner for 40. Rasmus Dahlin can pass Bobby Orr for points by an 18-year-old defenseman. Those three are worth watching for sure.

Starting Monday against Edmonton, Housley should be cutting Ristolainen's minutes down by 4-5 a night, giving some more to Dahlin and promising newcomer Brandon Montour.

The Sabres should send Tage Thompson to Rochester immediately. He's barely been an NHL player much of the season and isn't suited for any sort of serious game now. One problem is Vladimir Sobotka is still hurt and they may not want to call up any forwards from Rochester while the Amerks are in the playoff hunt.

So I'd call up Alex Nylander and see if he has any desire to have an NHL career with this organization. It's time. If he can't play or doesn't want to play, cut bait. Get Thompson ready for his playoff work in the AHL.

Shortly after the Leafs' first goal, Thompson flat-out waved at Toronto defenseman Martin Marincin in the Buffalo zone and only an Ullmark save prevented an early 2-0 deficit and an awfully short night for the Blue and Gold. It was a grievous play, the kind that cannot be rewarded with any more NHL ice time this season.

And if the Sabres don't want to call up a forward, then play with 11 forwards and seven defensemen. There is no good reason why Casey Nelson has sat for seven games after his conditioning assignment in Rochester while Matt Hunwick and Marco Scandella continue to play.

None of this makes sense. November seems like years ago.

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