When the Sabres had energy, they lacked killer instinct and scoring touch. When they ran out of energy, they had no chance.
Buffalo’s early season slide continued Sunday with a 4-3 loss to the Florida Panthers. The Sabres have won just once in the last seven games, the third season in a row they’ve struggled out of the starting gate.
They rebounded the previous two seasons by committing to team defense, and goaltender Ryan Miller wishes they had stored those rallies in their memory bank.
“It’s pretty obvious we didn’t take into consideration any of the lessons we learned last year,” Miller said. “It’s pretty plain and simple. It’s one thing to try and open up the game. It’s another to have control of the puck and try to play a system. If you try and open it up, you’re going to get in trouble. Try and play risky, you get in trouble.”
Most of the 18,831 who came to First Niagara Center got an early start toward their Super Bowl parties by filing out during the Sabres’ listless third period. They booed as they exited.
“We’ve got to pick it up, and pick it up quick,” left wing Marcus Foligno said.
The Sabres opened a 3-1 lead against Florida but didn’t have the stamina to maintain it. They did, however, have opportunities to extend it. They couldn’t as numerous players failed in their attempts to make it 4-1.
“We had our opportunities in the second period to put them away,” coach Lindy Ruff said.
Playing on back-to-back afternoons and for the third time in four days, Buffalo soon ran out of energy. The listlessness started showing late in the second period, and the Sabres had nothing for the third. The result was predictable as the Panthers, who last played on Thursday, pounced.
The Panthers tied the game before the second period ended, and old friend Brian Campbell scored the winner midway through the third. Tomas Kopecky lost the puck near the Buffalo net on a power play, but Campbell pinched from the blue line to rip it home with 10:33 to go.
“We were very flat in the third period and half that second,” Sabres left wing Steve Ott said. “The hard part is we had a lot of great scoring opportunities. You let them stick around the game, and it bites you. That’s what happened. We had too many quality scoring chances that we didn’t capitalize on. The tides turned, and we never found it after that.”
The Sabres, who are on a 1-5-1 slide, don’t have much time to recover. They play Tuesday in Ottawa and follow that with another stretch of three in four — Thursday at home against Montreal, Saturday in New York against the Islanders and Sunday at home versus Boston.
“We’re a little tired, but you can’t excuse it,” Foligno said. “It’s a 48-game schedule. You’ve got to make sure every game you’re going hard.”
The Sabres started fine. They needed less than three minutes to show they’d have a better first period than Saturday, as if it was possible to have a worse one than they put forth in the 6-1 loss to Montreal.
Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville combined to get them rolling, as the captain made a no-look, through-the-legs pass onto the stick of Vanek for a one-timer. The crowd roared for the goal with 2:46 gone, then marveled at the replay of Pominville’s pass.
After Florida scored on a quick shot after a faceoff, Vanek picked up two assists to put Buffalo up by two. He set up linemate Cody Hodgson and defenseman Alexander Sulzer as the Sabres took their 3-1 lead with 3:49 gone in the second.
Buffalo couldn’t widen its lead, though, and it cost the home team. Not long after Tyler Ennis was stopped on a breakaway and fanned on a one-timer, the Panthers mounted a comeback.
Tough guy George Parros cut the Sabres’ advantage to 3-2 by getting free from Ennis midway through the second. Seconds after Buffalo’s announcer said, “Last minute of play in the second period,” Florida struck again on a goal by Peter Mueller.
With nearly all the play at one end of the ice in the third, the pending result became obvious.
“It’s easy to start the game, hard to finish,” said Miller, whose team was outshot, 33-20. “Coming off back-to-back, you don’t have that same energy at the end of the game. You can’t get in a hole. You can’t get yourself in a situation like that.”