PHILADELPHIA — Jake McCabe stared at the Buffalo Sabres' bench with an expression of disbelief on his face and Carter Hutton watched a replay on the video board above center ice as an announced crowd of 19,781 roared inside Wells Fargo Center.
One of the Sabres' most complete efforts of the season had just been spoiled in the third period Saturday night when a pass went over McCabe's stick blade and toward Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux, who one-timed the puck inside the far post for the go-ahead goal.
"That's how it's going for us right now," Sabres winger Dominik Kahun said in a solemn tone following the 3-1 loss to the Flyers.
While the Flyers celebrated their ninth consecutive victory, the Sabres were left wondering how another impressive performance ended with a familiar result. Buffalo (29-31-8) has lost six in a row and scored two or fewer goals for the seventh straight game, despite firing 39 shots at Philadelphia goalie Carter Hart.
Though the Sabres' 66 points are the third-fewest in the Eastern Conference, one significant development came out of the loss: Coach Ralph Krueger may have found the right line mix to ignite the struggling offense.
After refusing to make the change for the first 67 games, Krueger reunited Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart on a line. Victor Olofsson was also placed with Marcus Johansson and Dominik Kahun.
Skinner, Eichel and Reinhart combined for 15 shots on goal, including seven in the third period. Kahun, who was acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins at the trade deadline Feb. 24, recorded his fourth point in five games with Buffalo by tying the game, 1-1, at 16:54 into the second period.
The Sabres bested the Flyers in 5-on-5 shot attempts (17-8) and scoring chances (11-6) with the Eichel line on the ice, according to NaturalStatTrick.com. Additionally, the group had six high-danger scoring chances.
"I thought we had some good chances," Skinner, who had six shots on goal, said. "We’d like to get one there and create some momentum, get us on the board. I thought Eichs and Reino played really well. Reino was really strong on the walls, won a lot of battles. That allowed us to stay in their end and create those opportunities."
Skinner sprung Reinhart for a breakaway in the first period, only to watch from the bench as Hart made the save. Hart, 21, entered Saturday with a 19-2-2 record and .942 save percentage at home this season. The line earned another quality even-strength scoring opportunity four minutes into the second period, as Reinhart had two shot attempts from atop the crease stopped by Hart.
The Sabres were a one-line team last season when Skinner scored many of his career-high 40 goals on Eichel's left wing. Additionally, the trio wasn't strong defensively, which led Krueger to keep Olofsson with the top line for much of this season.
There were few significant defensive breakdowns against Philadelphia (41-20-7), and two additions to the roster helped form a potent second line: Johansson and Kahun.
Johansson, who signed a two-year contract with the Sabres last July, eluded two defenders behind Philadelphia's net and sent a centering pass to the slot for Olofsson. While Hart and his teammates expected Olofsson to shoot, the Sabres' rookie winger passed to the far post, where Kahun had an easy one-timer to tie the score.
"I think we played a pretty good game," Olofsson said of his line. "Just playing with JoJo is really easy. We had good chemistry at camp and I feel like Kahun fits perfectly into our line. I think we created some good chances. We could have probably had a couple more goals today too. Let’s just build on that and I think we can find some really good chemistry."
The Sabres also had more 5-on-5 shot attempts (13-5) and scoring chances (5-2) when that line was on the ice. Additionally, Buffalo's other two forward groups excelled with puck possession, winning battles along the boards to sustain pressure in the offensive zone.
However, Buffalo failed to create enough traffic in front of Hart -- which resulted in poor shot quality -- and its power play failed to score on four opportunities, including three in the third period. Krueger shifted his power-play personnel in the third period by moving Skinner to the top unit, only to watch Buffalo's slump extend to 0 for 17.
"It felt really good," Krueger said of his lineup. "I really liked the team tonight. I thought we had two real nice pushing-more offensive lines with Johansson and Eichel. ... After two periods you’d say, 'Wow, we really put ourselves in position to break their winning streak,' but they’re on a roll. They’re playing excellent hockey. Very confident team."
The Flyers took advantage of Buffalo's mistakes, beginning with the first of Giroux's two goals. Hutton kicked the rebound from a point shot toward the corner, and Jakub Voracek sent a pass across the crease. Giroux, who was left uncovered near the far post, kicked the puck off his skate and used his backhand to beat Hutton for a 1-0 lead at 10:04 into the second period.
Voracek later passed the puck over McCabe's well-positioned stick blade, and Giroux timed his shot perfectly, as it went inside the far post for a 2-1 lead 9:28 into the third period.
The Flyers then pulled away when Rasmus Ristolainen passed the puck to his own goalie to relieve pressure from Philadelphia winger Joel Farabee. However, the puck bounced on Hutton, whose back-handed pass attempt to Ristolainen was intercepted by Farabee. The Flyers rookie then scored with a shot between Hutton's leg pads for a 3-1 lead.
It was the fewest goals the Flyers have scored during their win streak, and the Sabres left Philadelphia knowing how they need to play defensively to give themselves a chance in March.
There were no silver linings, though. Buffalo inched closer to a ninth consecutive season without playoff hockey, as even its best forwards are struggling to capitalize on opportunities.
"Anytime it’s going like that it’s not fun," Skinner said. "You want to win games and we’re getting opportunities. We’re just not finding ways to bury them and the other team is. That’s the difference in most of the games lately."