Boos reverberated throughout KeyBank Center as the Buffalo Sabres held on to the puck in the final seconds of regulation Tuesday night.
Several minutes later, inside a quiet dressing room, Sam Reinhart called for self-reflection and urgency, insisting players, not coaches, were responsible for the 6-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. Then, Rasmus Ristolainen, who expressed his disgust with losing during locker cleanout last April, used an expletive to describe another implosion on home ice.
The faces in the dressing room and behind the bench have changed during the Sabres' eight non-playoff seasons, yet the expressions of frustration by players and fans remain. Boos have followed three of the team's past four home games, and the Sabres (23-23-7) are now 12 points out of the playoffs.
Ralph Krueger, who was tasked with injecting belief and positivity, was unable to explain how his players have failed to rid themselves of the bad habits that have spoiled a season that began with a promising 9-2-2 October.
"Truly unacceptable and we have to do a deep dive on that," Krueger said. "Really disappointed. ... The final result is what it is. It’s a slap where you need some more time than what I’ve had right now to digest it. Again, we have no time for a big recovery. We're very disappointed right now and quite an unacceptable result."
The collapse began with a fluky goal. Colorado defenseman Ryan Graves' slap shot ricocheted off Ristolainen's skate and into the air. While five of the six Sabres on the ice were looking to their right, Sam Girard retrieved the puck in the opposite corner and quickly rifled a shot into the net for a 1-0 lead 13:12 into the game.
The Sabres outshot Colorado, 7-1, over the game's first 10 minutes and had a 2-on-1 foiled when goalie Philipp Grubauer poke checked the puck off Reinhart's stick. Forty-five seconds after Girard's goal, a poorly timed pinch in the neutral zone by Zach Bogosian gave Colorado an odd-man rush and Andre Burakovsky snapped the puck over Carter Hutton's blocker for a 2-0 lead.
The Sabres didn't crumble yet. Reinhart cut the deficit to one by deflecting Jake McCabe's slap shot with 0.9 seconds remaining in the first period. The momentum lasted for one minute of game time.
No Sabres defender was able to break up Valeri Nichushkin's cross-ice pass to the left-faceoff dot, where Nazem Kadri unleashed a wrist shot that sailed over Hutton's glove and into the top corner of the net to make it 3-1 one minute into the second period.
"I think there’s a lot of self-reflecting that needs to be going on," Reinhart, who is six goals off his career high, said. "Guys need to demand a lot more out of themselves than they have."
The uncharacteristic blunders continued. The Sabres failed to cover defenseman Nikita Zadorov, who retrieved a centering pass from Burakovsky and used his backhand to slip the puck between Hutton's legs for a 4-1 Colorado lead.
A routine save on Kadri midway through the second period earned Hutton sarcastic cheers from the crowd, and the Sabres' 34-year-old goalie was pulled after Colorado pushed the lead to 5-1 with Nichushkin's shot ricocheting off the stick of Buffalo defenseman Colin Miller.
"We better," Ristolainen said when asked if the Sabres can avoid a similar performance. "This should never happen in hockey. … You have to always take care of the defensive side of the game."
Defensive-zone coverage had been a strength under Krueger. Entering Tuesday, the Sabres had a plus-2 goal differential at 5 on 5, and their goalies' 5-on-5 save percentage since Jan. 4 -- the first game without injured winger Victor Olofsson -- ranked third in the National Hockey League.
Buffalo was unable to handle Colorado's speed on the rush, led by its top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. The Avalanche's second line -- Kadri, Burakovsky and Nichushkin -- combined for nine points.
"I think in times like this, it’s inevitable with any team," Conor Sheary, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with Pittsburgh, said of the Sabres' trouble handling emotional swings in games. "For the most part, we have a young group and a group the last couple years [that] it hasn’t gone the way they wanted it to. That’s probably part of it. You see when we’re winning we’re excited, we’re energetic, everyone is rooting for each other on the bench. Right now it’s a little bit dead."
The Sabres didn't make life easy for Hutton's replacement, either. Jonas Johansson, a 24-year-old recalled from Rochester after Linus Ullmark suffered a lower-body injury, was welcomed to the NHL by MacKinnon and Rantanen.
The two prolific scorers sped down the ice for a 2 on 1, with Rantanen shooting the puck off the near post and in for a 6-1 lead. The Sabres allowed four goals on six shots in 7:01 to start the second period. Despite facing a five-goal deficit, they generated only one shot in the first 10 minutes of the third.
"It's a tough one to swallow," Sheary said.
The Sabres haven't been the same since losing Olofsson to a lower-body injury. According to NaturalStatTrick, they rank in the bottom-third of the league in 5-on-5 shot differential, expected goals and high-danger scoring chances in 11 games without the 24-year-old rookie.
Additionally, the Sabres were without Rasmus Dahlin (upper body), Johan Larsson (lower body) and Curtis Lazar (illness). Ullmark and Kyle Okposo also are recovering from injury.
Neither Krueger nor his players were willing to accept the absences as an excuse. Aside from Reinhart and Jack Eichel, no one is producing enough offensively. The Sabres have six goals over their past four games, three of which were losses.
Jeff Skinner has zero goals in his past 15 games, Sheary has zero in his past 10 and Marcus Johansson has one in his past 22 games. After what Krueger called the Sabres' "most disappointing" home game of the season, all involved were searching for the reason behind a familiar result.
"What it is, I just can’t give you one single answer on that right now," Krueger said. "We need to look at the details, we need to communicate with each other, we need to work on a solution. I feel a group that’s working hard as far as the way we’re practicing, the way we’re communicating, and we just didn’t carry it through the game today."