DENVER – In a game that carried playoff intensity, the Buffalo Sabres had lots of answers Wednesday night against a team that has Stanley Cup aspirations.
But after coming back to tie the game twice, the Sabres couldn't get another equalizer with some great chances in the final minute. Former Sabres draft pick J.T. Compher burned his first organization for the tie-breaking goal with 8:06 to play and the Colorado Avalanche held on to beat Buffalo, 3-2, in the opener of Buffalo's four-game Western road trip in Pepsi Center.
Compher took a pass from Joonas Donskoi and was all alone in front as Buffalo defenseman Colin Miller left the slot to move toward Donskoi. Goalie Carter Hutton had no chance to make the save. Compher, taken by the Sabres in the second round in 2013, was traded to Colorado in 2015 in the Ryan O'Reilly deal.
It was a hard-fought game that saw Colorado outshoot Buffalo, 34-33. The Sabres nearly tied it in the final minute with Hutton on the bench for the extra attacker but Victor Olofsson fired one good chance off the post and was robbed on another by goalie Pavel Francouz, the NHL's reigning First Star of the Week.
The loss dropped the Sabres to 5-2 in their last seven games and prevented them from making up any ground on idle Toronto and Florida in the Atlantic Division. Buffalo remains eight points behind the third-place Leafs with a game in hand and six behind the Panthers.
Coach Ralph Krueger: "It was a really good hockey game. If this was the fifth game of the season, you'd be quite happy right now. It's just that all that matters to us are results. It really hurts but there's a lot to take with us here for how we need to play on the road ... Right now all that's at the surface is the pain."
The troublesome PK: The Sabres allowed two power-play goals in the game and their 1-for-3 performance dropped them to last in the NHL on the penalty kill, both in overall percentage (74.0) and road efficiency (67.8).
"It's unacceptable for us to be in that spot in any category," Krueger said. "What we need to do is continue to work on the simplicity of execution and off second shots. Today we got killed on the second opportunity where the puck focus on the kill was too strong and we need to adjust that. The puck belongs to 'Hutts.' (Hutton). We need to take away the chances and we didn't do it tonight. It's just not good enough."
Simmonds debuts: Buffalo winger Wayne Simmonds, acquired Monday from New Jersey, took a position on the team's second line with Marcus Johansson and Jeff Skinner. He had an immediate physical impact in the first period with booming hits in the offensive zone on Colorado's Vladislav Namestnikov and Ian Cole.
"That was good," Simmonds said. "You start to get into it with a couple knocks. Hit. Got it. That's always a good thing, right? I've got to be a little bit better with the puck but it's an OK start.
"We played a strong game. We didn't carry it for all 60 minutes but I thought we played well for a large chunk of that game there. ... This time of the year, you're going to have to push back and I thought we showed good pushback."
First period recap: The teams were tied 1-1 after an entertaining opening 20 minutes. The Sabres had the game's first six shots on goal before the Avs found their legs and took the lead on Gabriel Landeskog's power-play goal at 14:24, an easy tap-in after a neat back pass by Compher. The Sabres tied it at 16:21 on Zemgus Girgensons' tap-in off a backhand pass by Kyle Okposo.
LOG line streaking: The line of Okposo and Girgensons playing the wings for Johan Larsson continues to pile up the offense. Girgensons' goal was his 12th of the season, three shy of his 2014-15 career high. Okposo has four goals and two assists over his last five games while Girgensons is at 2-2-4 for his last three games.
Okposo 4-2-6 in last 5 GP, Girgensons 2-2-4 in last 3 GP https://t.co/XoAKISH1cT
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) February 27, 2020
More of the same in the second: Same pattern as Colorado took the lead with a power-play goal, only to see the Sabres forge another tie. Martin Kaut banged home a rebound at 7:15 for his first NHL goal before Curtis Lazar tied it at 14:56 by deflecting home Jake McCabe's wrist shot from the right point after great work down low from Michael Frolik.
Lazar: "Both teams are playing for something. We're fighting for our lives. It was a playoff atmosphere, playoff game. Every little battle matters and we're learning that. We had some good pushback throughout the game. Unfortunately, we couldn't get the last one."
Sabres stats: Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen was credited with eight blocked shots and seven hits. Jack Eichel had six shots on goal and again didn't take a faceoff as he's nursing an upper-body injury. Sam Reinhart was 5-10 on draws in his place.
Kahun sits: Newly acquired Dominik Kahun took a full morning skate but continued to sit out with a lower-body injury that forced him to miss his last two games in Pittsburgh. Kahun said he wants to play Friday night in Vegas.
"That's for sure my goal," Kahun said. "And I think it's a pretty good chance. We'll see."
Greatest Generation: On Military Appreciation Night, the Avalanche introduced 97-year-old World War II medic Leila Morrison and pictures of her from 60 years ago were projected on the ice. Morrison "dropped" the ceremonial faceoff between Eichel and Nathan MacKinnon, throwing it away from the players as the crowd roared.
Next: The Sabres flew to Las Vegas after the game and will practice at T-Mobile Arena in Sin City on Thursday afternoon. They meet the Golden Knights there at 10 p.m. EST Friday in what could be the Vegas debut of former Buffalo goalie Robin Lehner.
Marc-Andre Fleury started the Knights' game Wednesday against Edmonton and that could put Lehner, acquired at the deadline Monday from Chicago, in line to start against one of his four former teams. Lehner played three seasons for the Sabres before Buffalo walked away from him as a restricted free agent in 2018.