Casey Mittelstadt's solemn expression told the story late Monday night. The 20-year-old center hit the post to come within inches of scoring the game-winning goal in overtime and lost control of the puck on the Buffalo Sabres' final attempt of the shootout.
Those were two of a number of bounces that did not go in their favor.
"It's tough," Mittelstadt lamented following the Sabres' 3-2 loss to the Arizona Coyotes inside KeyBank Center.
The loss was not the direct result of Mittelstadt's bad puck luck, though. The Sabres (9-2-2) blew a two-goal, first-period lead for the second time this season, failed to kill a penalty on the tying goal and were out-shot, 30-15, over the final 40 minutes of regulation. They didn't record a shot on goal in overtime despite controlling the puck for most of the five minutes.
Coach Ralph Krueger later admitted he was simply relieved the Sabres managed to hold off the Coyotes to take the game into overtime. He didn't view mistakes as a sign of a larger issue, though. Instead, Krueger saw his players' energy level dip at the tail end of a chaotic October schedule.
"We got off to a good start, things seemed to be ticking well and then our energy level, we seemed to be digging deep the rest of the game," Krueger explained afterward. We fell back on our heels. ... I would say the shot total was a result of our energy today. Just not there right where we need it for our 'A' game and our game asks for a lot of movement, a lot of speed, a lot of skating. I feel we hit a bit of a wall today and let’s regroup and come back stronger [Friday] against Washington."
At times, the Sabres' play mirrored that of their struggles during the second half of last season, when they struggled to generate time in the offensive zone and allowed too many high-danger scoring chances.
Carter Hutton made 42 saves -- the second consecutive game the Sabres have allowed more than 40 shots on goal -- and nearly held off the Coyotes' barrage late in the second period. Buffalo scored the first goal for the 10th time in 13 games with Jack Eichel's wrist shot for his seventh of the season at 3:31 into regulation.
The Sabres also illustrated how their puck movement has improved under Krueger with Jeff Skinner's goal to make it 2-0 at 11:16 into the game. Skinner entered the offensive zone and dropped the puck off to Marcus Johansson, who skated to the left circle and fired a cross-ice pass for the assist. The goal was made possible by Jake McCabe darting through the middle of the ice to draw a Coyotes defender away from Skinner.
"I think we’ve just done a good job of establishing our game early," Eichel, who turned 23 on Monday, said. "I know there’s probably periods during that 60 minutes that we probably would like to have back or clean up a little bit, but it’s good to see we’ve been starting fast here. We get a lead but obviously you don’t want to give away a 2-0 lead at home. We have to find a way to get that next goal and it’s a bit frustrating, but we’ll get back at it and be better next game for it."
The Coyotes (7-3-1) seized momentum when Conor Garland scored on a shot from the left side of the goal line that snuck through Hutton's leg pads to cut the deficit to one. Arizona, which entered the game having allowed the fewest goals in the National Hockey League this season, then clamped down defensively.
The Sabres had trouble sustaining pressure in the offensive zone because of lost battles for the puck and an inability to get to the front of the net. Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper didn't have to deal with many rebounds and faced few high-danger scoring chances. Buffalo's best scoring opportunity following the first period occurred when a Coyotes defender turned the puck over near Arizona's net.
Kyle Okposo retrieved the puck in the slot but opted to pass to Johan Larsson, whose shot from the top of the crease was stopped by Kuemper midway through the second period. The Sabres weren't able to execute passes when they did have possession near the Coyotes' net.
"If you don’t put in a good pass coming in and you’re not sort of close to each other to support each other and make plays, they’re going to break them up and they’re going to head the other way," Skinner said. "I think we knew that coming in. They’re a good transition team, they transition fast and we just couldn’t seem to find enough time down there.”
The Sabres managed to sustain enough pressure to force five Coyotes to remain on the ice for nearly 3:30 in the second period. However, most of the shots during that span came from the perimeter with no one in front to screen Kuemper.
Hutton made a number of quality stops in the second period, most notably his glove save on Vinnie Hinostroza during a 2-on-1 break. But the Coyotes tied the score when Carl Soderberg's deflection sailed over Hutton's head and into the net.
The Sabres were out-shot 15-6 in the third period and Mittelstadt had three quality chances in overtime. However, Arizona won on Nick Schmaltz's goal in the second shootout round. The loss prevented the Sabres from matching the franchise record for the best home start to the season, but they remain atop the NHL standings with 20 points.
There are some troubling underlying numbers, including their negative-74 shot differential in the third period of games this season. However, there was no sense of panic inside the dressing room following a difficult home loss. The Sabres believe they have a formula to quickly correct the mistakes.
“I think sometimes we press," Mittelstadt said. "Everyone wants to make a play and maybe we press a little bit. I thought they played a good game tonight, too, obviously and they did a good job slowing us down. When we play them again, we’ve got to make sure we don’t play down to their speed and keep going at our speed and making plays and getting on the forecheck.”