MONTREAL – It was less than four months ago that the Buffalo Sabres were on top of the hockey world. Seems like years ago.
From first overall in the NHL after 25 games to out of the playoffs just 49 games later. It's the stunning epitaph to what rates as one of the league's historic collapses.
The Sabres' fate was clearly written a few weeks before Saturday's 7-4 loss to the Montreal Canadiens in Bell Centre. But there was a certain finality to this game, as it officially eliminated Buffalo from the postseason chase and forever linked them to the 2017 Philadelphia Flyers as the only teams in league history to miss the playoffs in a year they posted a 10-game winning streak.
The Sabres continue to be terrible in the second period, allowing four goals in this one. They wilt in the face of adversity on the road, where they're 11-21-5 and have lost 11 straight. They make mistake after mistake on defensive coverages and give the puck away with impunity.
Right now, they're not remotely close to being a postseason team. The clock is ticking on everyone.
Eight years with no playoffs and counting for owners Terry and Kim Pegula. Two years of complete failure for coach Phil Housley and General Manager Jason Botterill. Multiple years off the slate for many players.
There are eight games left in the season and yet another series of changes is sure to happen before the long NHL grind kicks into gear again come September.
"It's not an easy situation to be in," said a solemn Sam Reinhart, who was drafted No. 2 overall in 2014. "When you go through a couple years of it and they start adding up, it just adds to the frustration. When you do have a little bit of success at the start of the year, it makes it that much more difficult to lose."
Captain Jack Eichel, drafted a years after Reinhart, stood to face the media and spoke eloquently at times about the team's failure. When he was done, he sat back on the bench in front of his locker and quietly stared at the ground for a few minutes in the empty room.
"It's been a long process here, it's been a long year," Eichel said. "These same issues seem to continue to haunt us. We have to get better here for the next few games. I think there's a lot of pride on the line, there's a lot to play for. We represent our city, we represent each other and this organization. That should be enough right there. We've got to play for each other more."
One problem the Sabres have is their alleged core simply hasn't been good enough.
Eichel scored a third-period goal to cut Buffalo's deficit to 5-4 but it was his first in six games. Reinhart's first-period goal opened the scoring but was his first in 12 games. Jeff Skinner has one goal in 17 games.
The Sabres gave up three second-period goals to fall behind, 3-1 but battled back to tie the game on goals in a 75-second span by Alex Nylander and Marco Scandella. But Reinhart tried to do too much with the puck and was stripped inside the Montreal blue line and the play resulted in Paul Byron's tap-in with 1:57 left in the second that put Montreal in front, 4-3. The Habs never relinquished the lead.
"I'm kind of in between trying to keep it to myself," Reinhart said. "I probably should have dished it off earlier. That one's on me for sure."
Eichel had a simliar feeling on the fifth Montreal goal, by Brendan Gallagher at 8:35 of the third period. He was caught watching Shea Weber in the corner and failed to tie up Gallagher in front.
"I thought Weber might be taking it to the net," Eichel said. "He makes a good play and I've got to be better, be tighter on Gallagher and not let him get that shot away."
It was a tough night as well for No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, who was on the ice for three Montreal goals and was stripped behind the net by Phillip Danault to directly lead to Gallagher's second-period goal.
Coach Phil Housley was frustrated to see his team blow a decent first period that ended with Buffalo holding a 1-0 lead. Housley then reverted to his old standby of calling the Sabres a young team, but that's pure folly.
Skinner (653 career games) and Zach Bogosian (617) are 1-2 in the NHL among active players for most games played without appearing in the postseason. And key players like Rasmus Ristolainen (420), Reinhart (323) and Eichel (278) have combined to play more than 1,000 games with nary a playoff start.
"I believe they have it in them," Housley said. "I believe in that group that's in the room. We have to stick together right now. It's obviously not where we want to be and that's the frustrating part."
Ristolainen rang up yet another minus-3 to spiral his league-worst rating to minus-42 for the season. He's an astonishing minus-26 over his last 18 games and foolishly tried to rush with the puck while killing a penalty in the last five minutes.
He got caught in the Montreal end and could never get back in the play, allowing Max Domi to beat Carter Hutton with a screened shot for a 6-4 Montreal lead. Par for the course over the last three months.
"Just mistakes, critical mistakes," Housley said.