Sabres Shoot-First Mentality May Be Missing the Mark

The effort was there. The shots were there. Too bad the goals weren’t. The result: the Buffalo Sabres fell to the New York Rangers–a team they definitely need to beat to make the playoffs this season– and left points on the table yet again. It was a lost opportunity to stack a win on top of Saturday’s big victory.

Carter Hutton
Carter Hutton let in two goals. One he’d really like to have back. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

For the third straight game, and the fifth time in the last seven, the Sabres reached the 40-shot mark. This time, however, they lost to the Blueshirts, 3-1. Previously, they shellacked the Ottawa Senators 9-2 and lost to them, 4-2. That means they collected two out of a possible six points. Add in a loser overtime point to the Calgary Flames–a game they should’ve won in regulation–and they’re kicking themselves for being careless with “must-have” points. They’re 3-2-2 in their last seven games while cranking up the shot count. With wins so tough to come by in the NHL, the Sabres can ill afford to let these points pass through their hands. They need to beat these inferior teams.

Sabres Effort was There

While losing is never acceptable, in principle, it’s hard to rip the players in this one. The team was playing their fourth game in six nights. They were coming off an emotional high of a raucous game at KeyBank Center the likes of which haven’t been experienced in a decade. They got their shots and chances and controlled the play for long stretches of the game.

Leading the way, Jeff Skinner had five shots, while Kyle Okposo and Rasmus Dahlin each had four. Every player on the team registered at least one shot except for Vladimir Sobotka.

Sabres center Jeff Skinner
Skinner has been a shooting machine lately. (Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

That said, Henrik “The King” Lundqvist didn’t exactly stand on his head and steal the game. He wasn’t a beast. Sure, he made a lot of saves—39 to be exact. But far too many of them were easily seen, went into the logo on his chest, or seemed to have been shot with little thought of scoring but rather to just put one on net.

Housley’s recurring shoot-first mentality and his message to get pucks to the net only works when there’s a net-front presence. No screens and no rough-housing in front of the opposing team’s goalie makes for an easy night in this league. Quantity loses out to quality.

New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist always has his ‘A game’ against the Sabres. (Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports)

It didn’t matter. In the end, Lundqvist was as good as he needed to be to secure a victory. “Sometimes the game is not very logical. I feel like we didn’t play that great the first 30 minutes or so, but we were up 2-0 in the second,” said Lundqvist. “But I think we earned this type of game by now after playing a lot of good games and not getting the points. But then in the third I think we played our best period and we lose that period 1-0. Tonight, I felt like we made some really strong plays at the right time and it paid off.”

Sabres Played 59 of 60 Minutes

All it took to sink the Sabres was one measly minute. The Rangers’ Neal Pionk and Jimmy Vesey scored back-to-back goals in a span of 19 seconds during the first minute of the second period to give them a lead they’d never relinquish.

The first goal came off a deflection off defender Jake McCabe. “I think it hit him in the elbow and then it was in the back of the net,” said Sabres netminder Carter Hutton. “There wasn’t much I could do on that one.”

Then, before the arena announcers had finished announcing the scoring, Vesey rifled a laser, glove side past Hutton. “The second one… I’d like to try to battle and find it and make a save.”

Hutton made a number of key saves to keep it 2-0 when the Rangers were making a push to put the game out of reach. He stood tall. “I thought the team battled hard,” said Hutton. “We put up nine last game and tonight we were only able to find one. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”

Losing out to Puck Luck

Some say the Sabres lost this one because of puck luck. That’s an easy excuse. In this game, each team had their moments.

The Sabres failed to take advantage of four power play opportunities. Despite spending considerable time cycle the puck, and generating 14 shots on net, they failed to convert on any of their chances. In games the team has lost this season, the power play is a woeful 2-for-35.

The Sabres’ Casey Nelson nearly had a goal in the first. Lundqvist got a piece of it but lunged for it before it crossed the line.

Mika Zibanejad took a shot that hit the crossbar and bounced into the crease, but never crossed the line. Both he and trailing teammate Vladislav Namestnikov threw their hands in the air in celebration after they thought the game was blown open, 3-0. Rasmus Ristolainen swooped in to clear the puck out of the crease.

Lundqvist excelled in the same way he usually does against the Blue and Gold. Coming into the game, he had an 8-3-0 record, along with a 2.20 goals against average, a .924 save percentage and one shutout in his last 12 appearances against the Sabres.

“Give him credit, he played well,” said Eichel. “I thought we played a really good game. We’ve got to find a way to get one. We had a couple chances on the power play there. It’s frustrating. I thought we played pretty well. It’s tough when you’ve got nothing to show for it.”

Jack Eichel Buffalo Sabres
Eichel shrugged off the loss, tipping his hat to Lundqvist. (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

The Sabres’ red-hot line of Jeff Skinner, Eichel and Jason Pominville was held off the scoresheet.

“It’s gonna happen sometimes where you run into a goaltender that plays really well. Then they get a couple of bounces there. That’s the story of our game. That’s the story of our league. That’ll happen sometimes,” said Eichel. “You know, they’re getting paid, too. He’s one of the best goalies in the league and he’s all-world for a reason.”

It’s Good to be ‘The King’

During a skirmish In the first period, Lundqvist threw off his mask, forcing a stoppage in play. Many Sabres fans wanted a penalty for delay of game. However, one of the straps that secures his mark was clearly off, putting Lundqvist in danger. He was right to do this and it clearly falls within the rules of the game.

In the second period, Rasmus Dahlin made a play down low, skating by a bent-over Lundqvist who was out of his crease. Lundqvist took a hit to the head, causing him to drop to the ice. Play was halted and the Rangers’ trainer came to his side. Action was stopped for several minutes. If it was any other goaltender, concussion protocol would’ve gone into effect and Lundqvist would have had to leave the ice, at least temporarily. Apparently, just not at Madison Square Garden, when his team has a lead in a close game.

Housley Not Concerned

After the game, Housley didn’t seem overly bothered by the loss. “I really like the way we played, from start to finish,” said Sabres coach Phil Housley. “Obviously, I’d like to have two or three shifts back in the second period. But other than that, I thought we controlled the play.”

Buffalo Sabres head coach Phil Housley
Housley’s team took three of eight points in their last four games. (Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports)

Housley also gave a nod to The King. “Give credit to Lundqvist, he played outstanding tonight. That’s going to happen, but it’s just important that in those situations when it’s a tight hockey game you can’t take a shift off, you can’t let your guard down. They capitalized on some duplication and some soft coverage, so it’s a good lesson to be learned, especially in a tight game.”

The coach added, “If we continue to play like that, we’re going to win a lot of hockey games.”