Through all this legitimate talk of development and learning and building and finding guys who want to be here, it's important not to lose sight of one key thing: They still keep score in these games. The Buffalo Sabres have played 22 of them this year. They've won only nine.
Monday's 6-5 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in KeyBank Center rates as the hardest one to stomach this season. For the second time this month, the Sabres (9-12-1) had a third-period lead against the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions. They didn't win either game.
What was said in the stunned Buffalo dressing room after this gut-punch didn't really matter. It was the sights that resonated. Goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukonen staring straight ahead. Mattias Samuelsson slumped in his locker and Rasmus Dahlin sitting quietly nearby still with skates on. Across the room, veterans Alex Tuch, Kyle Okposo and Zemgus Girgensons were ashen-faced as they chatted quietly.
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Harsh bottom line that fans and players alike agree on: The Sabres are supposed to be better than this. Probably not a playoff team but they're not supposed to be seventh out of eight teams in the Atlantic Division. They were fifth last year. They're not supposed to be 13th in the Eastern Conference and three points out of the cellar. They were 11th last year.
As the old saying goes, general manager Kevyn Adams should be making that move for Arizona defenseman Jakob Chychrun yesterday. Especially if Ilya Lyubushkin is out any length of time after blocking a Steven Stamkos howitzer late in Monday's game. And at some point, the Sabres need a save from somebody other than 41-year-old Craig Anderson. Eric Comrie wasn't good enough until he got hurt, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has had two mediocre games in the three he's played.
The Lightning are a team full of stars, but six goals on 25 shots are still six goals on 25 shots. And Stamkos' OT winner wasn't a great goal either. An unscreened shot from the circle with Luukkonen out plenty far enough, but just off his angle enough to get beaten. A shame really. The Sabres outshot the Lightning 5-1 in overtime, with Owen Power getting stopped on a breakaway out of the penalty box and Brian Elliott stoning Tage Thompson, as well.
By then, of course, the Sabres were trying their best to overcome the shock of blowing a two-goal lead in the final 5 1/2 minutes of regulation.
"We rode the ups and downs of the game and it was almost as if we were hopeful: 'Clock just run out,' " coach Don Granato said. "We stopped playing. That is very uncharacteristic ... We created so much, you felt you should win, and it should be your game. And now you're protecting it once we got the lead and you can't."
With the Buffalo Sabres clinging to a one-goal lead, Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov tied the score with 2:02 left in regulation to send the game to overtime, and Steven Stamkos scored the game winner to send the Sabres to a 6-5 loss at KeyBank Center.
Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper held court with reporters Monday morning and talked about how the Sabres seem different this year. And you do see signs of what he meant, even though his team has won 11 of the last 12 meetings.
The Sabres have built one of the league's top lines in Tage Thompson between Jeff Skinner and Alex Tuch. If you missed Thompson's first-period goal Monday, go look at the video right now. It was absurd.
Jack Quinn is finding his game with Dylan Cozens and JJ Peterka and is up to four goals and 10 points in 17 games. Quinn scored a beauty in the first period, and Cozens' snapshot in the third gave the Sabres the lead. Tyson Jost, who looks like an awfully smart waiver claim by Adams, has quickly meshed with Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo on a pest line that keeps producing scoring chances, and Jost netted his first goal as a Sabre.
That's three solid lines while the Sabres try to figure out who of Casey Mittelstadt, Peyton Krebs, Rasmus Asplund and Vinnie Hinostroza will contribute with 11-goal Victor Olofsson, who can be a frustrating player to watch, at times, but is still on a 41-goal pace. After not getting a shot on goal and going 1-for-10 on faceoffs Monday, Mittelstadt looks about ready for a stint in the press box.
Cooper always thought highly of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen, and figured that was enough of a starting point for the Sabres. Now, there's a new wave and more promise.
"The team, in my opinion, it's younger, it's deeper and it's dynamic throughout the lineup," Cooper said of the Sabres. "Listen, we all make mistakes. Buffalo is going to make mistakes, Tampa's making mistakes. There's no perfect team out there. But this team, you used to have to be able to really just maybe check one line, and you're OK. But now, it's not like that."
"Look at New Jersey, the way they are now: young, fast, and they're kind of coming into their own," Cooper said of Lindy Ruff's Devils, who are 19-4 and looked boffo here Friday night. "You look at Buffalo, probably not where New Jersey is right now. But they're probably in that same trajectory. It's just going to take them time. They're going to have to go through a few more growing pains. But look at the young guys they have on 'D'. And in some of these young forwards, they have a pretty dynamic team."
It was the second time this month the Sabres and Lightning played a hugely fascinating game. Tampa won the earlier meeting Nov. 3 in Amalie Arena 5-3 by scoring three goals in the third period after the Sabres had gone ahead on a Jeff Skinner goal. The Sabres lost this one largely because they gave up three power-play goals and stopped attacking.
"You want your team to learn its lessons quickly, so it will be fascinating to see what the Sabres can do with an arduous schedule staring at them," writes Mike Harrington.
"There's no doubt they have the skill now," Stamkos said after the game. "And it takes time to get that skill and use it and put it together at both ends of the rink. We learned that the hard way over time, as well. They're a team that has some elite, elite offensive players. They have a couple really good defensemen. They have all the pieces.
"It's just a learning curve. They're going to be there. It's certainly exciting hockey when you play against those guys."
Stamkos, of course, has held the Stanley Cup over his head twice. He knows what he's talking about. The problem for Buffalo fans, of course, is it's hard to deal with the waiting.