Nearly all of Jeff Skinner's 19 shifts Wednesday night in KeyBank Center illustrated his ability to create scoring chances, a quality that helped him earn an eight-year, $72 million contract from the Buffalo Sabres this past June.
This was the sort of individual performance the Sabres needed from Skinner. Yet, he had no interest in speaking highly of his own play in the aftermath of a 3-2 overtime loss to the Calgary Flames. Skinner, like each of his teammates, was consumed with frustration following another game in which the Sabres could not capitalize on opportunities.
"I have to finish and I didn’t," Skinner lamented. "Keep working at it."
The analysis from the Sabres' dressing room was familiar. None of the players who spoke to the media expressed overwhelming concern. This was another game where there were signs of progress, particularly the 16 shots on goal in the third period and impressive stretches in which they controlled possession in the offensive zone.
Jimmy Vesey and Victor Olofsson provided offense on a night when Skinner, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart did not score. However, they did not find solace in progress. The reality is Buffalo (11-10-4) is 2-8-2 in November and sixth in the Atlantic Division. The good vibes created during a remarkable October are a distant memory.
"I don’t know what it is, but we’re finding a way to not close out games," Vesey said. "Maybe things are snowballing just the way it’s gone. We’ve got to get back to the start of the year. When we were playing like that there was a really good feeling in this room and we’ve played that style for stretches. It’s a results league and right now we have to find a way to get back."
The difference was Elias Lindholm's goal at 1:17 into overtime, a result of the Sabres' impatience during the possession-driven 3-on-3. Neither Rasmus Ristolainen, who was on the ice for all 77 seconds, nor Olofsson were able to prevent Lindholm from cutting in front of the net and tucking the puck around Linus Ullmark's right leg pad.
The Sabres had the chance to avoid an overtime altogether. Matthew Tkachuk tied the score, 2-2, with 15:58 remaining in regulation on a shift in which he eluded Jake McCabe's check in the corner and went uncovered during a scramble in front of Buffalo's net.
There is an argument to be made that Calgary (12-12-4) was lucky to be within one goal, too. After all, the Sabres had a number of opportunities during the first two periods. Skinner missed the net from the high slot, Rasmus Asplund hit the post, Vesey was stopped on a first-period shorthanded chance in front and Eichel held on to the puck too long during a 3-on-1 rush.
Vesey scored his second goal in as many games when Asplund created a turnover at the opposing blue line on a penalty kill with 13:28 remaining in the second period to tie the score, 1-1. The Sabres' 25 goals in November rank 30th out of 31 National Hockey League teams in November.
“It’s probably a lack of confidence," Krueger said of the offense's struggles. "I mean, you can see Vesey now, he gets his first goal and how confident he was on that opportunity. We just need more guys firing. There’s quite a few guys that are not hitting the target right now. Why is that? I mean, number one, first of all, we try to set it up so that we get the majority of scoring chances which we did again today. That’s generally the plan, so the guys are sticking with the plan.
For me, it’s a mindset right now, it’s a negative momentum against us right now on the results. We need an explosion one day probably, have a five, six, seven goal game to really get out of this situation. But stick with it and creating scoring chances is a positive."
Buffalo almost broke through on a power play late in the second period after Eichel drew a penalty at the end of a remarkable shift in which he forced a turnover to pin Calgary in its own zone. Sam Reinhart hit the post moments later, though. Olofsson gave the Sabres a 2-1 lead 1:55 into the third period, only to have Tkachuk tie the score 2:07 later.
The Sabres had another impressive power play in the third period, but Flames goalie David Rittich stopped shots by Eichel, Skinner and Brandon Montour. Buffalo could not earn second chances in front of the net and has struggled to gain the positioning needed to tip shots from the point. The Sabres' power play is 1-for-33 over its last 12 games after ranking second in the NHL through October.
"We have to finish when we get a chance," Skinner, who has one goal in his last seven games, said. "Our power play has to get a little bit better. It seems like that sucks a little bit of momentum out of us when we can’t score. We work hard, we spend time in their zone and do a good job of drawing a penalty. It just seems like we can’t buy one there right now. Five-on-five, too, we have to do a better job of finishing our chances and closing out games."
There weren't any excuses coming out of the Sabres' dressing room, either. They had practiced only once in the past week and only so much can be accomplished during a morning skate. There has also been a rash of injuries during November, most recently the loss of Rasmus Dahlin, who is out indefinitely with a concussion.
The latter could be partly responsible for them generating only one shot on goal through the game's first seven minutes. Their offense was stagnant during stretches because of poor breakout passes by defensemen. However, Skinner said adversity is inevitable and the Sabres need to a better response.
"We have to work through it," Skinner said. "Every team is going to run into injuries. Every team is going to run into adversity. You have to respond and right now it’s our time to respond. We’ve got to turn it around."