OTTAWA – Despite losing four of their first five home games out of the All-Star break, the Buffalo Sabres were in position Tuesday night to close within six points of a playoff spot.
Relentless offensive pressure produced two goals by defenseman Brandon Montour in the game's first 10:12 against the Ottawa Senators, who have the second-fewest points in the Eastern Conference. The Sabres were playing with the same speed that propelled them to a 9-2-2 record in October.
Then it all fell apart.
The Sabres allowed four goals in 3:29 during the first period and never recovered, losing to the Senators, 7-4, in Canadian Tire Centre.
Neither coach Ralph Krueger nor his players could explain how it all unraveled so quickly. However, all involved acknowledged the consequences of blowing a two-goal lead amid a desperate playoff push. The Sabres (27-25-8) are in jeopardy of having another season defined by missed opportunities.
"Gotta find a way in a game like that," Kyle Okposo, who was the first of two Sabres to cut the deficit to one in the second period, said. "We have to win that game."
Though Okposo underscored the need for urgency, the Sabres showed very little of it after taking a two-goal lead Tuesday night. Montour, who was acquired ahead of the trade deadline last February, scored his fourth and fifth goals of the season within eight minutes of each other.
The 25-year-old's first occurred on a rebound off Jeff Skinner's shot and the second was a slap shot from the left point after Victor Olofsson retrieved a loose puck near the right-wing boards. A strong start should be enough against an opponent that has scored the fifth-fewest goals in the NHL this season.
With a 2-0 lead in hand, the Sabres went on the power play with 12 minutes remaining in the first period. Instead of pulling away, Buffalo allowed a shorthanded goal when Vladislav Namestnikov retrieved a neutral-zone pass and skated around Skinner toward the net, where a shot leaked through Carter Hutton for Ottawa's first goal.
Krueger lamented the sequence afterward by saying his power play "didn’t have the work ethic" needed against an opponent that leads the NHL in shorthanded goals. A little over one minute later, Artem Anisimov faked a wraparound to bait Hutton into a mistimed poke check and, without a Sabres defender on that side of the net, fired a shot to the far post to tie the score, 2-2.
"As a coach, you always second guess should you have done something," Krueger said. "There was a TV timeout coming on the way, but it was just too fast, too quick. Very, very disappointing. We just lost everything we had built over the first 15 minutes. We broke down in the D zone like we haven’t been lately. We stood and watched a team that went hungry on their toes and felt the opportunity and they used it. Good for them, bad for us. … Like we do, we fight our way back in to it, but too little, too late."
Drake Batherson scored nine seconds later to give Ottawa a 3-2 lead. The Sabres were unable to clear a loose puck from the slot and Batherson swept his own rebound past Hutton. The Senators' fourth goal occurred on the power play, when Anisimov's shot from the high slot went in.
Two days after scoring three goals in 1:31 during a 5-2 win over Toronto, the Sabres allowed three goals in 1:14 against an opponent that's amid a significant roster rebuild.
"You have to wipe that as best as you can," Montour said. "It’s tough having that, but there were still two periods to fight back. I felt like a couple shifts there we did that, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. You can’t take shifts off. You can’t take periods off, especially in the position we’re at."
"Fell asleep for seven minutes and they scored four goals," Okposo said. "We knew that they have shorthanded prowess and gave up a shorty. That’s unacceptable. Can’t give up four quick ones and try to dig yourself out."
The Sabres twice cut the deficit to one. Okposo scored by redirecting a 2-on-1 pass from Johan Larsson at 2:36 into the second period, only to have Jean-Gabriel Pageau push the Senators' lead to two again less than seven minutes later.
Victor Olofsson's one-timer on the power play – his 19th goal of the season and third in three games since returning from a lower-body injury – with 6:13 left in the period made it 5-4. Olofsson also had two quality scoring chances stopped by Craig Anderson in the third period.
However, Pageau scored a power play goal with 7:07 remaining in regulation to help the Senators pull away, and Anthony Duclair added an empty-netter. The Sabres are off Wednesday and have two practices scheduled before their weekend back-to-back, which begins Saturday in Pittsburgh.
Though there are 22 regular-season games left, the Sabres know they are running out of time to make up for a number of missed opportunities.
"We have to win games," Okposo said. "That’s it. That’s the bottom line. We have to trust the way we play is going to produce results and we just fell asleep a little bit. We can’t have that. We can’t have those mental errors right now."