The good news is the Buffalo Sabres finally proved they could score a goal without Thomas Vanek on the ice. Unfortunately the defensive lapses, face off deficiencies and untimely penalties continued and all led to their demise Sunday; a 3-2 loss at the Washington Capitals.
Buffalo has now dropped three in a row after opening the season with a pair of wins.
Vanek was a late scratch after Lindy Ruff was hopeful he’d be able to play despite a muscle strain in his back. Vanek’s presence in the lineup can’t be overstated after being on the ice for all 11 of Buffalo’s goals though their first 14 games. With him out it was Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno providing the offense, each scoring their first goals of the season.
It wasn’t enough.
Ennis gave Buffalo a 1-0 lead at 9:34 of the first off a nice from Steve Ott as he slid a backhander past Michal Neuvirth.
Joel Ward tied it up at 1-1 with 3:58 left in the first when he put a puck past Ryan Miller as he was falling down in front of the net. Both Cody Hodgson and Jordan Leopold were near Ward but didn’t prevent him from getting off the shot.
The Caps took their first lead at 3:18 of the second when defenseman John Erskine took a seemingly harmless wrist shot from the blue line that went off Hodgson’s stick and deflected past Miller.
Washington appeared to put the game away in the third period with the man advantage. With Alexander Sulzer in the penalty box after foolishly firing the puck over the glass for a delay of game penalty, Alex Ovechkin took a pass and fired a rocket one timer past Miller for the 3-1 lead.
Foligno cut the deficit to 3-2 with 9:47 left to play when he banged a rebound past Neuvirth, but Buffalo was unable to get the equalizer.
Are the Sabres officially becoming slump busters? Carolina started the season 0-2 before running of a pair of wins at Buffalo’s expense. Washington was winless in their first four before this afternoon. Carolina’ Eric Staal went the first two games without a goal before scoring a hat trick against Buffalo in game three. Ovechkin hadn’t scored for Washington this season, the worst scoring drought of his career to start a season, but that changed in the third period when he one-timed a blast past Miller on the power play for what proved to be the game-winner.
This loss can’t be put on Miller. Washington fired 30 shots on Miller and many were quality scoring chances. Simply put, Miller kept his team in the game all afternoon.
Is it too early to panic? It’s only five games in, but it’s becoming glaringly obvious Buffalo needs to find a veteran center that can store and consistently win face offs. Ott is a gritty guy, but is he the one you want taking critical face offs in the final minute when you’re down a goal?
Vanek being out without question hurt the rhythm of Jason Pominville and Cody Hodgson. When Vanek’s healthy that line has proven to be lethal. But it remains to be seen if Ennis and Foligno will carry over momentum from today’s goals.
Here’s a poorly kept secret—the Capitals are not a very good hockey team. Buffalo needs more offense and they need to find it soon.
Some News & Notes
Jeanneret Back In Booth: After missing the first four games with an undisclosed illness, Rick Jeanneret was back in the booth calling the game Sunday. Kudos to Kevin Sylvester, who did a fine job in his place, but there’s no one like Jeanneret.
New Lines: With Vanek out, Nathan Gerbe slid into the first line alongside Jason Pominville and Cody Hodsgon. Steve Ott moved up with Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford. Mikhail Grigorenko centered Marcus Foligno and Jochen Hecht while Mat Ellis returned to center Patrick Kaleta and John Scott. The same six defensemen that have played the first four games remained together, although T.J. Brennan took part in the pre-game skate.
Finally Scored Against in First: l Ward’s goal with 3:58 left in the first period for Washington was the first goal the Sabres have allowed in the first period all season.
Bad Days: if you didn’t watch, take my word that Stafford, Hecht and Sulzer were pretty brutal this afternoon.
Decision Time on Grigo: Mikhail Grigorenko played in his fifth game Sunday. If he plays in a sixth that means a year of his contract is used up. Grigo was pointless again Sunday but far and away had his best game of the season. Grigo logged 17:10 of ice time and was in on a handful of legitimate scoring chances. At this point I’d consider it a huge upset if he’s returned to juniors.
Face Off Woes Continue: Buffalo won just 20 of 33 face offs against the Capitals Sunday; a clip of just 37.8%.
Bright Spot: His one assist in the stat sheet may not be overly impressive, but Patrick Kaleta was a big-time force on the ice today. He had several bone bruising hits and saw plenty of ice time in the third period with the game’s outcome still undecided. Lindy Ruff showed a lot of confidence in Kaleta and he didn’t disappoint. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s on a third line come Tuesday.
Up Next: The Sabres return home to face the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday. In an abbreviated 48-game season, the last thing Buffalo needs is a four-game losing streak.
Hopefully Vanek will be back.
Foligno knows each game is precious to the standings.
“We’re a desperate team now,” he said after the loss. “We’ve lost three in a row here so the next game is going to be huge.”