PHILADELPHIA – A recruiting effort that lasted almost two years ended Friday with record-setting goalie prospect Devon Levi signing an entry-level contract, conjuring a smile from General Manager Kevyn Adams as he described the importance of his latest addition ahead of another must-win game for the Buffalo Sabres.
“Devon has been, as you guys all know, tremendous in his college career and he’ll go down as one of the all-time great goaltenders (in the NCAA),” Adams said inside Wells Fargo Center. “We’re just excited to get him on board.”
A possible landmark day for the franchise ended in bitter fashion on the ice, though. Adams watched his roster, among the youngest in the NHL, buckle under the pressure of needing to chip away at a deficit in the Eastern Conference’s playoff race.
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The Sabres’ postseason chances might have taken a final death blow with a 5-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers to end a three-game road trip that began with an emotional, come-from-behind win in Toronto.
Buffalo (33-29-6) trailed 4-0 at the second intermission after allowing three goals during a second period in which they made critical mistakes around goalie Craig Anderson.
The Sabres didn’t break the shutout until Victor Olofsson’s one-timer on the power play, his 25th goal of the season, with 17:33 left in the third period. They outshot the Flyers 21-4 in the final 20 minutes of regulation after their captain, Kyle Okposo, addressed a dressing room full of players who, for the first time, are experiencing meaningful games late in the regular season.
“I just wanted (everyone) to know how important this was to us,” said Okposo. “Obviously, guys care in here. That’s not a question if guys care or not, but we have to try and find a way to seize the moment. That was the message after the second period. We might still lose the game, but we have to lay everything we have on the line.”
Flyers winger Owen Tippett completed his hat trick less than six minutes after Olofsson scored with a breakaway goal to put Philadelphia ahead, 5-1. The Sabres’ top players were held in check by the Flyers, who owned a negative-50 goal differential and were 3-11-2 in their previous 16 games. Tage Thompson and Alex Tuch combined for three shots on goal and a minus-6 rating, while Jeff Skinner saw the ice for only two shifts in 7:43 to start the third period.
The Sabres couldn’t recover after Joel Farabee gave the Flyers a 2-0 lead when he collected the puck off the end boards after a botched 2-on-1 and tucked it past Anderson with 16:07 left in the second period. Philadelphia scored two goals in the final 6:46 of the middle frame while Buffalo’s forwards and defensemen lost the structure that’s made them one of the league’s top offensive teams. Turnovers led to rush chances, as the Sabres desperately pushed to try to narrow the deficit.
“Tonight, a lot of guys looked drained,” said Sabres coach Don Granato. “For us, there’s obvious pressure. We’re in a position that every point matters and unfortunately, there’s a lot of pain to that and you have to learn to rise. I didn’t feel we did that well today and this is a good position for that reason to be in because we need to develop that. That needs to be developed. It’s obvious that’s something that’s developed through the league. Hardships have to make us better.”
Granato made two changes that caused him to alter his forward combinations, inserting Olofsson and Vinnie Hinostroza while scratching JJ Peterka and Tyson Jost, both of whom scored Wednesday in Washington. Olofsson scored twice, capped by his 26th of the season with 0.4 seconds left in the game, but Hinostroza had five of his six shot attempts blocked. Granato explained that the move was made because he doesn’t want to sit “capable” forwards for too long and saw a benefit in adding rested players against a heavy, tight-checking team like Philadelphia.
The Sabres never established the pace that makes them dangerous offensively, and Granato threw his forward lines in the blender again to try to find an answer. Olofsson’s first goal got them back into the game, but Philadelphia answered right away when Thompson lost an offensive-zone faceoff that turned into Tippett’s breakaway goal.
The Sabres have been outscored 46-28 while going 2-6-2 in their last 10 games. Only 14 games remain in a regular season that’s included career years for several members of their core. It’s the first time since 1990-91 that five Sabres have totaled at least 25 goals in a season. Their power play is among the most effective in franchise history, and they earned an opportunity to snap a playoff drought that dates to 2011. But they’ve shown the telltale signs of a young team while playing must-win games.
Levi will join the team as soon as he completes the immigration process, and the door is open for him to make his NHL debut sometime before the season ends. However, results won’t change with a different goalie if the Sabres play like they did in the second period Friday night.
“We’ve got to get hot,” said Okposo. “We’ve got to get really hot. We’ve got to go on a run without compromising our foundation and what we’re building and we’re not going to have guys go off on their own page. We need to stick together. We need to play together.”
Here are other observations from the game:
1. Finding a way
Thompson, Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power were on the ice long after practice ended Thursday, working with assistant coach Matt Ellis to sharpen their games. For Thompson, the skill session was a way to try to capitalize on the chances that he couldn’t convert on recently. He has zero goals in his last seven games despite earning opportunities. It was another difficult night for the 42-goal scorer. He finished with two shots on goal and a minus-3 rating.
“I feel like sometimes you go through maybe some struggles or, whatever, in your own individual game and some things you can work on and try to get the puck touches back and that confidence back,” Thompson explained Friday morning. "I mean, I feel like I've been getting a lot of chances and they just haven't been going in. So, I just tried to work on getting shots off a little quicker and maybe not thinking as much when I do get those opportunities and those looks.”
2. Sitting out
It’s no surprise that Olofsson was back in the lineup. His goal-scoring prowess is needed during a time of the season when it’s difficult to put the puck in the net. But it’s difficult to understand how it helps the group to sit Peterka. No Sabres forward was on the ice for more high-danger scoring chances at 5-on-5 than Peterka the previous four games, according to Natural Stat Trick. The 21-year-old winger had two goals and seven points in his last eight games.
The Sabres are 0-5 this season when Peterka is a healthy scratch. He’s still a developing player who needs to improve areas of his game, particularly on defense, but he can also help them establish the pace they didn’t have Friday.
Dahlin is among the Sabres who have been pressing recently. He has one assist with a minus-10 rating in eight games since returning from injury, including seven in a row without a point. There’s a night-and-day difference between Dahlin’s game now and before he missed time with a lower-body injury.
The Sabres host the Boston Bruins on Sunday at 1 p.m., followed by the Nashville Predators on Tuesday at 7 p.m.