A 10-game winning streak propelled the Buffalo Sabres to the top of the NHL for one day and offered hope to a fan base that has not experienced playoff hockey since 2011.
Now, the Sabres' second season under coach Phil Housley could be defined by another figure: 197 minutes, 40 seconds. That is where their scoring drought stood after they were shut out for a third consecutive game, losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 5-0, Thursday night in KeyBank Center.
The performance caused Jason Pominville to question the Sabres' pride, and Kyle Okposo grimaced while trying to explain how their play has become so unpredictable since the height of their success.
The Sabres (30-31-9) have lost 12 of their last 14 games, including six straight, and own the league's second-worst record since November had the city's fans imagining a playoff run. The team has not won back-to-back games since Dec. 13, and has gone over one week without scoring a goal, despite facing two backup goalies during that span.
"Consistency has been an issue," Okposo lamented. "When was the last time we won back-to-back games? Three months? I don’t know. That’s the definition of inconsistent. I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know what to say, but we have to find something. We have to find some jam in our game and our attitude and the way we approach the game, because that can’t happen at home."
Buffalo took a different path toward the same result. Okposo described the 3-0 loss Saturday in Colorado as "bad all-around," while Tuesday's 2-0 loss to Dallas at home was partly bad luck. Allowing five goals in two periods to Pittsburgh (39-23-9) was a continuation of a season-long problem.
The Sabres routinely choose to opt out of the sort of blue-collar work that fuels teams like the Penguins. Pittsburgh finished with more shots (28-26) and shot attempts (54-50), but it was in jeopardy of facing a deficit on multiple occasions.
However, Buffalo was unable to sustain offensive pressure because it opted for shots from the outside, rather than getting the puck behind the net and forechecking. The Sabres also failed to create traffic in front of Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith, who had a clear look at most of the 26 shots he stopped.
Meanwhile, Penguins center Sidney Crosby set up Phil Kessel for the go-ahead goal at 6:40 into the second period on a play that began with a simple forecheck behind Sabres goalie Carter Hutton. Pittsburgh pushed its lead to 2-0 when Hutton was unable to see Brian Dumoulin's shot because of a screen by Teddy Blueger.
"That’s winning hockey," Pominville said. "That’s what we have to get back to. We have to have more pride to get to that area, get our nose dirty. It’s a tough league to score in. You’ve got to pay a price to get to the net and we have to get pucks there. Right now, we’re definitely not doing enough."
Patric Hornqvist made the Penguins' lead 3-0 at 17:08 into the second period, when he parked himself in front of the net, collected a loose puck that went off a shin pad and fired a backhanded shot for a power-play goal.
Nick Bjugstad and Jake Guentzel also scored, the latter coming on a net-front screen with 1:58 left in regulation, to give the Sabres their most lopsided defeat since a 7-2 loss in Edmonton on Jan. 14.
Meanwhile, the Sabres' only quality chances came from around the net. Conor Sheary, who finished with a team-high six shots on goal, had three shots from the slot stopped by DeSmith. Jeff Skinner's goalless drought stretched to 13 games – tied for the second-longest of his career – after he also couldn't score on a power-play chance from in front of the net.
"That’s just where we’re at as a group right now," Housley said. "We continue to talk about getting to zone one, getting in front of the net. I think we didn’t do that, whether it was off the rush we didn’t drive and stop there and play a puck. We could have created our own chances more by getting to the net. We have to scrape and claw. We have to get dirty now."
Housley could not explain why his team has a propensity to stray from what makes it successful, while Sheary said there needs to be a "buy-in" to playing the type of hard-nosed style deployed by the league's elite teams.
Entering Thursday, the Sabres had scored the sixth-fewest goals since November, and their issues are magnified without Eichel, who has 25 goals among 72 points in 65 games. He will be eligible to play Saturday night in Carolina, but his teammates don't seem close to a solution.
Buffalo has been formidable at times throughout the season, holding the distinction of being only one of two teams to mount a third-period comeback against the Penguins, and has beaten Washington, Tampa Bay, Winnipeg, the New York Islanders and Calgary Flames.
Yet, their season could be defined by a scoreless drought that has assured they will become only the second team in NHL history to miss the playoffs in the same season they won 10 games in a row.
"It’s proven to work earlier this year, so this is a frustrating time for us," Sheary said. "We’re obviously not feeling great about ourselves. We just have to come to the rink ready to work each day and hopefully put out a better effort Saturday."