When Carter Hutton skated to the bench after the first period Tuesday night, six of his Buffalo Sabres teammates were waiting to thank him. Hutton, the team's 33-year-old goalie, had just stopped all 19 shots he faced in the first 20 minutes.
Following the second period, Hutton slammed the shaft of his stick against the dasher board in front of the Sabres' bench. In the aftermath of a 4-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in KeyBank Center, Hutton was seething. Typically introspective and open to reporters after even the most difficult games, he could not hide his frustration any longer.
Hutton stopped 42 shots -- including 36 in the first two periods -- only to see the Sabres fail to win back-to-back games for the first time since Dec. 13. They have lost 14 of their last 17 games with only nine remaining this season and failed to beat the Maple Leafs in four tries this season.
"I think you can’t control wins and losses sometimes as a goalie," Hutton explained. "Obviously you can do your best to try to steal games. Again, there’s only so much I can control, so I try to take it shot by shot and whatever comes – I can’t control what they get. I think right now obviously I’m really frustrated. I’m not very good at hiding it."
The Sabres (31-33-9) were out-shot, 46-24, including 38-15 over the first two periods, and had 30 fewer shot attempts than the Maple Leafs (44-25-5), who had lost four of their previous five games and were playing the second night of a back-to-back.
Hutton and the Sabres were the victims of bad luck, too. Toronto tied the score, 1-1, at 1:43 into the second period when Andreas Johnsson's backhanded centering pass ricocheted off Auston Matthews' skate and over the goal line.
The Maple Leafs then took a 2-1 lead with 1:28 left in the period when William Nylander's shot hit the post and the puck bounced off Jack Eichel's knee and laid in the crease until John Tavares poked it over the goal line.
Still, the Sabres were being out-shot 18-5 when Casey Mittelstadt broke a scoreless tie with his power-play goal at 15:04 into the first period, and they would have been trailing by multiple goals had it not been for Hutton's heroics.
Those included a remarkable pad save on Kasperi Kapanen, another on Nylander's point-blank chance in the second period and a split save to rob Matthews during a 2-on-1 to keep the Sabres' deficit at one goal. Again, they allowed too many scoring opportunities against an elite opponent.
"We have to be better as a unit," Mittelstadt said of Hutton. "Obviously, he bailed us out a countless amount of times. Even the goals they scored were lucky bounces, things like that. Nothing he can do. He played a great game and obviously we need to be better for him for sure."
Hutton refused to describe those goals as "lucky," adding that allowing so many chances against any opponent is going to lead to the same result. The Sabres struggled to break the puck out of their own zone because they could not gain possession of loose pucks along the boards, and they committed too many turnovers.
Tage Thompson gave the puck up at the start of the third period, leading to a Maple Leafs possession that resulted in Mitch Marner giving them a 3-1 lead only 22 seconds in. Sabres coach Phil Housley changed his defensive pairings and forward lines -- including splitting up Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart -- throughout the game in an attempt to fix the issues in all three zones.
Finally, the Sabres gained traction in the third period, and Alex Nylander scored his first NHL goal of the season at 5:37 by firing a one-timer over Garret Sparks' blocker to cut the deficit to one goal. That proved to not be enough.
Maple Leafs winger Zach Hyman added an empty-net goal with 33 seconds remaining to assure their fifth consecutive win over the Sabres.
"Carter Hutton bailed us out in the first and second period," Housley lamented. "We knew the magnitude of this game, the rivalry. We didn’t execute early. We couldn’t make a wall play. We didn’t move our feet. We turned the puck over and then it came right back at us and we were chasing a lot. We couldn’t kill the cycle and then when we had the puck we didn’t manage it very well."
The performance came hours after Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill expressed confidence in his goaltending during his weekly show on WGR Radio. Hutton, who went 8-0 with a .936 save percentage during the Sabres' 10-game winning streak, was pulled after allowing three goals on 12 shots during his last start against Toronto on Feb. 25.
However, among 13 NHL goalies who have made 10 starts since Feb. 21, Hutton's .918 save percentage in 10 games ranks seventh -- ahead of Washington's Braden Holtby and Montreal's Carey Price. He expressed confidence in his recent play, saying he has "been in tune for a long time."
Hutton is under contract for two more seasons and has played a career-high 44 games. Housley and Botterill are using the final days of this season to evaluate for next year, and while familiar problems led to another defeat, their starting goalie may have found an answer to what ailed him following the streak.
"I wish I could put it into words," Hutton said of failing to win back-to-back games. "It’s obviously frustrating. A lot of us wear it on our sleeve here. We put so much into this. I put my heart and soul out there. It’s frustrating. You want to win. You want to contend and help this team get into the playoffs. Obviously, right now we’re not doing that.