TAMPA, Fla. — So you were staring at your TV in disgust trying to stomach the Buffalo Sabres’ performance Tuesday night? You weren’t alone. Ron Rolston had the same emotion standing behind the bench.
Jaws clenched, the team’s interim coach was economical with his words but didn’t mince many either after a lifeless 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning before 19,204 at Tampa Bay Times Forum.
The Sabres had seven shots on goal through two periods and finished with a season-low 14. They generated basically no offense against a team on a three-game losing streak that was two days removed from firing coach Guy Boucher.
It was a snoozer of the highest order. One not acceptable on so many levels but not unusual for this group, either.
“There wasn’t a lot of urgency in anything tonight,” Rolston said cryptically.
Asked why, he bristled and shot back, “It’s a good question. Did you ask the players? What did they say?”
When told the players don’t usually offer any real answers, Rolston said, “They don’t have it? Well I don’t either. Can’t help you on that one.”
What were the issues? The power play went 0 for 4, failing to score for the first time in five games and doing almost nothing on its final three chances. Passes were sloppy. The neutral zone battle was lost most of the night. There was no traffic in front of the net, not many shots getting through.
Other than that, everything was great.
To make matters worse, leading scorer Thomas Vanek left the game in the third period with what appeared to be an aggravation of his sore hip and will be evaluated today. Vanek is clearly laboring and had to pull up on a second period breakaway because Tampa defenseman Victor Hedman caught him from behind. Vanek slammed on the brakes as Hedman streaked by to create some room but slid his shot wide of the net.
Tampa goaltender Mathieu Garon – who was pulled in his last two starts while giving up six goals on 29 shots – was hardly challenged in this one until Jordan Leopold beat him with a slap shot from the left point with 3:08 left.
Until then, Garon had things so easy he may as well have been at the tiki bar across the street from the arena with his favorite umbrella-topped beverage. The Sabres gave him quite the vacation.
“We were on a roll there too,” mused Leopold. “Three games without a loss and get something rolling there and you go out and have that. … They carried most of the play puck possession wise. We didn’t create much.”
Garon came into the game with a 4-8 record and .901 save percentage in his career against the Sabres but he made only one high-quality save all night. That came in the second period on a Jason Pominville one-timer from the right of the crease.
Tampa Bay went up for keeps at 16:01 of the first period when Steven Stamkos ripped home his NHL-high 23rd goal on a Martin St. Louis feed. The Lightning then capitalized on a five-on-three power play with St. Louis’ one-timer at 8:15 of the second period off a beautiful cross-ice pass from Teddy Purcell.
After Leopold’s goal, the Sabres did basically nothing in terms of pushing for an equalizer with goaltender Ryan Miller out of the net in the final minute.
The Sabres fell to 2-8 against the Southeast Division, a grouping so weak that it’s possible only the champion will make the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Lightning entered the game 14th in the Eastern Conference but evened the season series at a win apiece. The Sabres, who are 12th, play Thursday at last-place Florida before hosting 11th-place Washington on Saturday.
Buffalo slipped to five points out of eighth – and much closer to what appears to be a necessary flushing of the roster.
“No one is going to help us,” said Miller, who had little chance to stop either goal. “We’ve got to get two points every night. Tonight’s first two periods didn’t speak to what we’ve been trying to do lately. It goes to show. We lose a game because of it.”