NASHVILLE – Kyle Okposo paused, closed his eyes, shook his head and gave reporters a glimpse into the Buffalo Sabres' mindset following a particularly difficult road loss.
"Tough to swallow right now," Okposo acknowledged Saturday night in the visitors' dressing room at Bridgestone Arena. "That’s a really tough game. Obviously we wanted that one bad."
The Sabres might spend their week away stewing over how they unraveled in the final moments of a 2-1 loss to the Nashville Predators. Buffalo peppered Predators goalie Pekka Rinne with 17 shots on goal in the second period, only to be hemmed in its own zone for most of the game's final 10 minutes.
Craig Smith's redirect off the post and into the net with 6:29 remaining in regulation stood as the game-winner. Rather than entering the break on a season-best four-game win streak, the Sabres (22-20-7) are six points behind the Florida Panthers for third place in the Atlantic Division.
"It’s one to learn from," Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said. "Who knows? Maybe going into the break with the pain will make us that much stronger coming out of it."
The Sabres don't want their season to be defined by missed opportunities. It's become a theme, though. Impressive stretches of play have often been followed by lulls. Their 4-1 win over the Stars in Dallas on Thursday was a sign of maturation.
Buffalo shut down the Stars in the third period and scored two empty-net goals to improve to 18-1 when leading after two periods. The Sabres finally discovered how they needed to play against the NHL's best, especially with Victor Olofsson and Jeff Skinner out.
They followed the recipe again Saturday. Buffalo kept most of Nashville's shots to the outside, and Linus Ullmark managed to clean up most of their mistakes. The 26-year-old goalie made a highlight-reel split save on Smith's backhander from in tight the second period. Later in the second, Ullmark was caught out of his net attempting to play the puck and dove across the crease to prevent a goal.
Though Ullmark stopped 35 of 37 shots, he didn't face any breakaways or odd-man rushes. His ascent as the Sabres' No. 1 goalie is one of many encouraging signs for Buffalo entering the break.
"I thought Linus made five or six unbelievable saves tonight," Okposo said. "He’s done it all year."
The Sabres also overcame a horrific start. They did not have their first shot on goal until 12:08 into the game, a redirect by Johan Larsson that hit Rinne's leg pads. An impressive cycle in the Buffalo offensive zone resulted in Sam Reinhart scoring his 17th goal of the season for a 1-0 lead with 1:02 remaining in the first period.
Rasmus Dahlin faked a shot from the right circle to fool Rinne before threading a pass between two Predators defenseman to find Reinhart at the bottom of the left circle. Reinhart enters the break with 21 points in his last 21 games.
The Sabres had a number of chances in the second period, beginning with Zemgus Girgensons redirecting an Okposo pass from the slot into Rinne's chest. Their best opportunity came with under a minute remaining when Okposo's redirect went off the crossbar.
However, Buffalo entered the second intermission tied because Ryan Johansen retrieved a loose puck that ricocheted off the end boards and banked it off Zach Bogosian and into the net to make it 1-1 with 13:55 remaining.
"It’s frustrating because we feel we had our opportunities and just didn’t find a way to capitalize," Reinhart said. "I think both teams played a tight game and there were momentum swings throughout it, and they were able to find that last goal to go ahead."
The third period wasn't a total disaster for the Sabres. They had four shots on goal during an early power play, however, one-timers by Marcus Johansson and Conor Sheary fluttered toward the net. Buffalo went 0 for 3 on the power play and enter the break amid an 0-for-6 slump on the man advantage.
Withstanding an inevitable Nashville pushback was imperative Saturday. The Sabres buckled, though. Fueled by their home crowd, the Predators (22-18-7) forechecked effectively to earn long possessions in the offensive zone in the third period.
Larsson was stuck on the ice for almost three minutes during a sequence in which Ullmark had to stop a Mikael Granlund slap shot from the high slot. Jack Eichel was penalized for tripping at the end of a 75-second shift with 6:36 remaining.
Seven seconds later, Smith's redirect on a pass from Kyle Turris rang off the post, hit Ullmark in the back and crossed the goal line for a 2-1 Nashville lead.
"I thought that was some of the best hockey they could have played and I think that we, for a lot of the game, managed it, and we just missed a couple opportunities to take a stranglehold on the game," Okposo said. "In the third they came out with a push and we just couldn’t survive."
Despite going 3-6-1 over their previous 10 games and firing Peter Laviolette on Jan. 7, the Predators' production at 5 on 5 is among the best in the NHL. This game illustrated Buffalo's improvement under Krueger, particularly without the puck, and the Sabres enter the break with five wins in their last eight games.
Nine of their first 10 out of the break are in KeyBank Center, and Skinner and Olofsson are closer to returning. Still, forgetting about the loss won't be easy during a week that's supposed to provide players with much-needed rest after a chaotic schedule.
"It’s pretty obvious what we need to do," Reinhart said. "We just have to keep chipping away. We’ve been setting goals kind of internally and we’re just trying to keep meeting those goals. … This one is a little disappointing, but we have some time to regroup and re-energize."