The shift late in the second period Thursday night was everything Ralph Krueger wanted to see from the Buffalo Sabres following a 10-month break.
Cody Eakin, a playoff-hardened center signed in October, and Dylan Cozens, the top prospect who starred at the IIHF World Junior Championship for Canada, battled with Washington Capitals defenders to pry away a loose puck in the offensive zone.
Tobias Rieder, the veteran winger added this offseason to fix the penalty kill, out-muscled Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman John Carlson to gather the puck in the crease, carried it around the back of the net and scored on a wraparound to cut the deficit to two goals. The tenacity and attention to detail came far too late for the Sabres, though.
A sluggish start to the team’s first game in Buffalo since last March, and an ugly turnover early in the third period, resulted in a 6-4 loss to the Washington Capitals to open this 56-game season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The passing wasn’t crisp. Defensemen struggled to prevent the Capitals’ dynamic forwards from driving to the net. Even the Sabres’ stars, most notably Jack Eichel, appeared out of sorts in the early moments. But Krueger and his players saw glimpses of how this team needs to play to have success in the rugged East Division.
The unusual circumstances surrounding his debut only made Dylan Cozens’ first game with the Sabres more impressive.
“We had a very disappointing start,” Krueger said. “They came with a lot of speed. We had trouble adapting after the break. … They did a very good job of getting on us and taking away space and time and the pressure. I thought it took us at least a period and a bit to finally see our legs coming.”
There were positives to cull from what could have been a one-sided game. Taylor Hall, the former Hart Trophy winner who signed a one-year contract to join forces with Eichel in Buffalo, scored his first goal as a Sabre on a power-play redirect to tie the score 1-1 in the first period.
Cozens, a first-round draft pick in 2019, had what Krueger called a “very good” first game. And following a disjointed start to the game, Eichel found his legs and rediscovered his timing. The 24-year-old captain had two assists, including a cross-ice pass that Jake McCabe one-timed from the point for a goal 20 seconds into the third period, cutting the deficit to 4-3.
The Sabres’ power play, which was among the worst in the league from last December to the end of the 2019-20 season, showed it could be a significant strength. In addition to Hall’s goal, the second unit created some promising chances.
The penalty kill, which ranked 30th in the NHL last season, also rebounded following an ugly start. After allowing a goal on a rebound in the first period, the Sabres’ shorthanded unit had an impressive penalty kill with Brandon Montour, Curtis Lazar and Riley Sheahan applying pressure on the Capitals.
With an extra attacker on the ice, Victor Olofsson scored on a shot from below the right faceoff dot to make it 5-4 at 18:06 into the third period. Olofsson, a 20-goal scorer as a rookie, also assisted on Hall’s goal and had a sound two-way game. The Capitals added an empty-net goal moments later.
What we need, of course, was the howling of the fans and we know that's not happening any time soon.
“I think you can take solace in the fact that we were able to come back and make it close,” Hall said. “Obviously, we’ve got some guys offensively who can put it in the back of the net and force the issue that way. But it seemed like we were playing catchup all night, which is a tough way to play against any team, but a team like Washington, a veteran team, that’s going to be a tough night. So, we were behind the eight-ball kind of right from the start of the game and weren’t able to get out in front of things.”
Krueger will need to make corrections quickly ahead of the Sabres’ game against Washington on Friday. Though the forwards improved their passing as the game went on, the defensemen mostly struggled with alleviating pressure on the breakout and could not contain the Capitals’ forwards.
Nicklas Backstrom opened the scoring when he was left wide-open backdoor and received a pass from Alex Ovechkin, who fought his way through traffic, past Montour, to create space. T.J. Oshie scored on the power-play for a 2-1 lead when Ovechkin’s shot created a rebound atop the crease and no Sabres defenseman was there to clear the puck.
As the Sabres’ defensemen were changing, Eichel could not corral the puck in the offensive zone and Carlson bolted down the right side of the ice. Without a defender to contest the shot, Carlson rifled the puck to the far post and into the net for a 3-1 lead at 7:05 into the second period.
“The D that were under pressure and/or having difficulty to solve the pressure, but I thought the forwards weren’t holding up properly,” Krueger said. “We weren’t coming back hard enough to support the defensemen. I thought they were exposed at times. … You can’t simulate this in practice and we just have to take what we were doing in the last period and start that way tomorrow, but I’d say all of us as a group just needed an adjustment period.”
Brenden Dillon added a second-period goal for a 4-1 Washington lead. And although McCabe’s one-timer gave the Sabres momentum early in the third, the Capitals scored 26 seconds later when Eric Staal turned the puck over in front of his own net and Jakub Vrana beat Carter Hutton to make it 5-3.
Hutton, who started his third consecutive season opener since joining the Sabres, made 22 saves. The biggest loss of the night, though, could be Staal, who left the game in the third period after taking an elbow to the head from Nic Dowd. Krueger said Staal is day to day and will be evaluated in the morning.
“He’s a big part of our team not only on the ice but off the ice,” Hall said. “He’s been around, he’s played over 1,000 games. He’s made a huge impact in this league and on our team already so hopefully he’s OK.”