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Sabres lose fifth straight game as offensive struggles continue

The puck was on Marcus Johansson's stick in front of the Pittsburgh Penguins' net during the final seconds of what coach Ralph Krueger called one of the Buffalo Sabres' better periods this season.

Johansson did not shoot, though. Instead, he unsuccessfully attempted to stickhandle around a Penguins defender and the Sabres had nothing to show for a second period in which they had eight more scoring chances than their playoff-caliber opponent.

The sequence illustrated the Sabres' offensive woes during this recent skid, which continued with a 4-2 loss to the Penguins in KeyBank Center on Thursday night. Buffalo (29-30-8) has lost five consecutive games in regulation and has scored two or fewer goals in six straight.

"It’s fighting up a big hill right now, but more than anything, it’s our offensive production that’s causing us the pain," Krueger said afterward.

There weren't a lack of opportunities. According to NaturalStatTrick.com, Buffalo had more scoring chances than Pittsburgh (21-17), including a 9-1 advantage during the second period. Additionally, the Sabres continued to have success possessing the puck in the offensive zone.

However, the offensive woes persist and are similar to those encountered under former coach Phil Housley last March, when the Sabres had two or fewer goals 10 times while posting a 2-12-2 record.

Buffalo isn't creating enough traffic in front of the net and most of its 30 shots against Pittsburgh came from the perimeter. General Manager Jason Botterill tried to address the issue at the trade deadline by acquiring power forward Wayne Simmonds, but the Sabres are still having trouble finishing.

The Sabres' second period included a one-timer from the right circle by Jeff Skinner, a 2-on-0 rush featuring Johansson and Jimmy Vesey, and Vesey skating in alone after a Penguins turnover. The 20-minute stretch was capped by Skinner's 2-on-1 saucer pass to Simmonds, whose shot created a rebound for Johansson in the final seconds of the period.

With a defender closing in, Johansson decided to try to create more space before attempting a shot, but he mishanldled the puck and the period ended.

"We definintely created enough chances to score goals," Johansson said. "I think for a lot of that game we were the better team. In the second period we played really well. We pressured them and pushed them back, but we come out empty-handed. It’s frustrating when it’s like that."

The Penguins (39-21-6), on the other hand, capitalized on their opportunities. Patric Hornqvist's power-play goal for a 3-1 lead with 6:28 remaining was Pittsburgh's first shot of the second period, and the Penguins were outshot, 19-8, over a span of 32 minutes.

The Sabres struck quickly in the third with Johansson scoring from the high slot off a feed from newly acquired winger Dominik Kahun at 1:57 to cut the deficit to one goal. However, Sabres rookie goalie Jonas Johansson was unable to stop a backhander from Sidney Crosby, whose 15th goal of the season gave the Penguins a 4-2 lead with 13:58 remaining.

Krueger again shuffled his lines in the third period to try to coax more offense. Jack Eichel centered Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo, and Johan Larsson played between Victor Olofsson and Sam Reinhart.

Though the Sabres had 11 shots on 15 attempts in the third period, they were unable to create enough traffic in front of  Matt Murray, who stopped 28 shots and did not face a significant scoring chance in the final two minutes of regulation.

"We have to get dirty ones, greasy ones," defenseman Jake McCabe, who scored his third goal of the season, said. "Going off skates, shin pads, rear ends, chests. … You have to keep getting pucks and traffic to the net and try to get one of those to bounce in for us if it’s not going to come the pretty way. Keep peppering away."

Unlike their historic collapse of 2019, the Sabres showed they are a better defensive team under Krueger. The Penguins were unable to create much offense off the rush and did not earn many high-danger chances after the game's first 10 minutes.

Pittsburgh took a 1-0 lead at 7:56 into the game when Nick Bjugstad collided with Jonas Johansson and Hornqvist shot the loose puck in to the net. The goal survived Krueger's coach's challenge, which gave the Penguins a power play.

“Yeah, I was quite stunned," Krueger said of the unsuccessful challenge. "I mean, we reviewed it about six times and they’re claiming that we knocked him in but there was a normal altercation. ... But it is what it is and we needed to recover. We did and just didn’t do enough after.”

McCabe scored a shorthanded goal by intercepting a pass at the Sabres' blue line and beating Murray on a breakway with a backhander to tie the game, 1-1. However, Pittsburgh took a 2-1 lead on Marcus Pettersson's shot that went between Johansson's leg pads with 7:34 remaining in the first period.

The Penguins pushed their lead to 3-1 at 13:32 into the second on a Hornqivst power-play goal in which the puck went off Johansson's stick and into the net. During the second period, the Sabres outshot Pittsburgh, 10-3, but they were outscored, 1-0.

Eichel has not recorded a point in six consecutive games for the longest mark of his career. Reinhart and Olofsson are pointless in six and seven games, respectively. The Sabres' power play went 0 for 3 against Pittsburgh and is marred in an 0-for-13 slump dating back to Feb. 22.

"What can we do?" Krueger said. "We have to keep working. We have to keep creating those chances and look to work for the uglier goals. That’s going to be our only way back into success here."

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