SUNRISE, Fla. — This is the conundrum that is Buffalo Sabres hockey, circa 2013.
They are good enough to have five wins over the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins, the top two clubs in the Northeast Division. They are bad enough to have nine losses against the paper-thin Southeast and, by most accounts, are headed for a roster flushing at next Wednesday’s trade deadline.
And they can drive you mad within a game, too.
Take Thursday’s 5-4 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers, witnessed by far fewer in BB&T Center than the ridiculous announced crowd of 17,044.
The Sabres roared back from a 2-0 deficit to take a 3-2 lead after two periods, then gave the lead away twice in the third. Mike Santorelli got the winner for Florida in the fourth round of a shootout, giving the last-place Panthers their second win of the season over Buffalo.
“Especially when you get back into the game, you want to make sure you close it, clog it up and don’t give them anything,” said Jason Pominville, who scored Buffalo’s lone goal in the shootout. “You’ve got to play defense to win games. Defensively we weren’t good enough.”
One point in two games against the bottom two teams in the East on a Florida trip isn’t good enough. Three games until epochal changes will come. Maybe sooner. There were two scouts from the Los Angeles Kings in the press box Thursday, including assistant general manager and former NHL goalie Ron Hextall. The defending Stanley Cup champions have been trailing the Sabres home and away for the last three weeks.
The Sabres were much better offensively but much worse defensively in a game where the shots on goal finished 40-40. They weren’t smart either. Ville Leino got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for chirping at a linesman about an offside call in the final minute of the first period. When Tomas Fleischmann scored on the power play 43 seconds into the second, Leino’s night was over.
“We expect more from everybody in that room,” said interim coach Ron Rolston, who also benched the struggling Tyler Myers for all but 2ø minutes in the second period. “Whether you’re a veteran or a rookie, it’s about being the team so he didn’t play the rest of the night.”
“It was a stupid penalty and it cost us a goal,” said Leino. “ ... It was a stupid play and a stupid penalty.”
Nathan Gerbe, Andrej Sekera and Drew Stafford all scored in the second and Marcus Foligno tipped home Jordan Leopold’s shot on the power-play at 11:33 of the third to put Buffalo up, 4-3.
But Steve Ott went for tripping at 12:37 and Florida rookie Jonathan Huberdeau tied the game at 13:51 with his 13th of the year.
The shootout had some bizarre drama as Miller seemed to stop Huberdeau on Florida’s second attempt but the puck went off the post, off the knob of the goalie’s stick and slid precariously close to the goal line. Initially ruled no goal, a lengthy video review correctly gave Florida credit.
“You get in that situation where unless you have your foot a lot higher, it’s probably a goal,” Miller said. “It went off the post. I think I knocked it in somehow. It’s not one where you’re not expecting that one to come back at you.”
The Sabres started sleepy and only woke up when Miller stopped Shawn Matthias on a breakaway early in the second that could have put Florida up, 3-0. Instead Buffalo got on the board 20 seconds later when Gerbe’s floater from the boards deflected home off defenseman Filip Kuba and injected life into the attack.
“The second and third we played the way we wanted to and created some offense,” Rolston said.
Somehow, the Sabres are still only four points out of a playoff spot but closing in on a very uncertain future with 14 games left.
“There’s 28 [points] on the table,” Miller said. “Go get them.”