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Sabres searching for answers after 'very painful, unacceptable finish'

Even Ralph Krueger couldn't come up with a positive anecdote from the final 14 minutes of the third period Saturday in KeyBank Center.

The manner in which Buffalo allowed three unanswered goals in a 6-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks was particularly maddening for the ultra-positive coach. Rather than following the structure that earned back-to-back wins without Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson, the Sabres tried to match the Canucks' run-and-gun style.

"That’s definitely something we can’t accept." Krueger lamented. "It was a hell of a hockey game until 14 minutes to go, and we turned it into a very painful, unacceptable finish."

There is a heightened sense of urgency in the Sabres' dressing room. Although Krueger has stressed the importance of focusing on the present, they're faced with the harsh reality of falling further out of the playoff race.

The Sabres (19-19-7) are 3-8-1 over their last 12 games and remain nine points back of the Atlantic Division's third-place Toronto Maple Leafs. Buffalo is struggling to stick to its identity, and its running out of time to find a solution.

"This is the time of year where you can learn and get those experiences, I guess, but in the end here, we have a tough division," defenseman Brandon Montour said. "We’re points behind now. You've gotta collect points. It’s one of those things where you obviously need to get as many wins as you can before bye week and if you’re close in the mix there you have to sprint to the end, so every point matters. Mistakes cost you and we have to correct those and fix them."

The final 14 minutes spoiled an otherwise promising performance for the Sabres. Montour ignited the offense -- which had a total of 37 shots in its previous two games -- with a goal at 8:44 into the first period to break the scoreless tie.

Sam Reinhart scored his 15th goal of the season to break a 1-for-21 power-play slump for Buffalo, tying the game, 2-2, with 13:35 remaining in the second period. The Sabres tied the game again when Zemgus Girgensons tipped Kyle Okposo's shot with 13:32 left in regulation.

The collapse started moments later.

With Lawrence Pilut playing too loose in coverage, Brock Boeser scored his second of two goals with a one-timer off a pass from Christopher Tanev for a 4-3 lead.

Seventy-four seconds later, and with the Sabres having a delayed penalty, Jake Virtanen capitalized during a 3 on 1 by one-timing Tyler Motte's backhanded cross-ice pass into the net. Carter Hutton allowed three goals on his first six shots faced in the third period.

"It’s a tough one to let slide, for sure," Reinhart said. "I think we just lose a little bit of structure and that’s a team we can’t do that against."

The breakdowns were uncharacteristic for the Sabres. Entering Saturday, they had allowed the seventh-fewest high-danger scoring chances at 5 on 5 in the National Hockey League, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.

Krueger's defensive-zone structure brought the stability the Sabres lacked during Phil Housley's two seasons as coach. They entered the game Saturday with a plus-3 goal differential at 5 on 5, compared to negative-31 in 2018-19.

When the Sabres lost Skinner and Olofsson to injury in a span of six days, Krueger emphasized the importance of playing sound defensively. They've been outscored 11-4 over their past two games, including a 5-1 loss at St. Louis on Thursday.

The mistakes weren't limited to the third period, either. Boeser's first goal at 15:33 into the first period came on a tipped shot when the Sabres were unable to move him from in front of the net.

Bo Horvat then gave the Canucks a 2-1 lead at 3:44 into the second period by scoring on a 2 on 1 that began with Henri Jokiharju getting caught near Buffalo's blue line. Though Pilut managed to get his stick on Horvat's cross-ice pass, the puck went directly back to the Vancouver center.

Reinhart tied the score with his one-timer from the left-wing circle, however, the Sabres failed to bring any momentum into the third period. Jake McCabe turned the puck over to give Vancouver a possession that ended with Miller retrieving his own rebound and surprising Hutton with a shot over the glove.

"I think just little things," Montour said of what went wrong in the third period. "The first one, rebound, kind of right off the start of the period there. ... Those things can't happen. it's the time of year here where we need points no matter how to win them. We need those points. And 2-2 going into the third, we've got to bear down and find ways to win those games."

During his postgame news conference, Krueger admitted he was still "processing" the loss. He planned to analyze video with his coaching staff and go over their findings with the players Sunday morning ahead of a 5 p.m. game in Detroit.

A lack of continuity may be partially to blame. Injuries, performance and the Marco Scandella trade have prevented the Sabres' defensemen from having consistent partners. Krueger was more interested in potential solutions, though.

"It was a good game going on, but just too many individual breakdowns today through the game, from beginning to end," Krueger said."We need to look hard at this – like I said – quick. No time. Five o’clock game tomorrow against Detroit, but those final 14 minutes we really,  really need to put a mirror in front of our faces and figure out why we gave up on what is our game. There’s just no sign of it."

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