Throughout Sunday’s contest, the Buffalo Sabres outperformed the Winnipeg Jets in almost every way imaginable.
Except in the category that matters the most – the final score.
A 3-1 loss to last season’s Western Conference finalists left the Sabres scratching their heads because they outshot the Jets 36-29, bested them in shot attempts by a 66-51 margin and won 27 faceoffs compared to the opposition’s 20. Yet they fell to 27-21-7, and continued their recent futility.
“It stings because of the position we’re in,” coach Phil Housley said. “We need points. It was tough because we win a game (on Saturday) and I thought our effort or just the way we were playing wasn’t like tonight.
“We came and we charged. It was a good, solid game by us. We need to find a way to get into overtime or maybe score an overtime goal or get to the shootout. We broke there.”
A frustrated Jack Eichel, who notched just his third goal in his last 14 games, didn’t see any silver linings in his team’s performance.
“I don’t know how many more times we can take the moral victories anymore,” Eichel said. “I mean, we’re 55 games into the year. How many times can we say, ‘Oh, we played well but we didn’t get any points’? Other teams are getting points and moving up in the standings, and we’re not. I think the moral victories are a thing of the past.”
After a scoreless first period, the Sabres received a powerplay chance early in the second stanza of play. While they failed to score with the man-advantage – going 0 for 5 in that area on the afternoon – matters were made worse when rookie Rasmus Dahlin attempted to keep a bouncing puck inside the Jets’ zone. He failed, and Andrew Copp swooped in, stole the puck and beat goaltender Carter Hutton clean with a wrist shot to score a shorthanded goal.
Almost ten minutes later, Eichel tied the game up off of a give-and-go with Dahlin and Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck screened by Sam Reinhart. But that was all the Sabres had to give in the goal scoring department for the day.
With 3:55 remaining in the third period Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey, standing at the left faceoff circle in Buffalo territory, made a pass underneath Dahlin onto captain Blake Wheeler’s stick in the slot and leading to an easy one-timer to give Winnipeg a 2-1 lead. That shift was a product of the Sabres being stuck in their own end of the ice for more than a minute and failing to clear the puck out of the zone.
“We got caught in our zone for quite a bit of time,” Housley said. “I thought our guys really dug deep on that shift and defended well. That’s hockey. You have to defend when you’re getting near the end of a period, and they were fortunate that we had a couple of guys run into each other.
“That left Morrissey a little bit of room, but I thought we closed on him. We just needed to lock up in front, and we didn’t do that.”
Mark Scheifele iced the game on an empty-net goal with just 6.5 seconds to play.
By losing to Winnipeg, the Sabres remain in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, two points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final wild-card spot and one point behind the Carolina Hurricanes. To help get there, the Sabres know that they need to start putting together consecutive wins – something they haven’t done since December.
“It’s not going to be easy,” goaltender Carter Hutton said. “There’s a lot of guys in this room who have never really been to the playoffs and this is playoff hockey. Every night is going to be tough and it’s going to be a coin flip. It’s a good thing to be playing meaningful games this time of year. This is a new thing for a lot of guys here, and we just have to keep to it.”