Buffalo is the worst team in the NHL, so there’s never going to be an easy game on the schedule. Still, things seemed to set up ideally for the Sabres entering Sunday’s game against Detroit:
• The Red Wings traveled to Buffalo for the second of back-to-back games and their third in four nights. The Sabres hadn’t played since Thursday.
• Detroit was without injured Pavel Datsyuk, its leading goal scorer, and started backup goaltender Jonas Gustavsson.
• The Wings were mired in a long slump with just one victory in the previous nine games.
None of that mattered. The struggling Sabres still aren’t in position to take advantage of any breaks.
Detroit looked fresher and ultimately better than Buffalo during a 3-1 victory in First Niagara Center. The Sabres have dropped four straight to fall to 5-19-1.
“Games like this, these are the musts to win,” forward Zemgus Girgensons said. “It just didn’t work out.”
Not much has worked out this season. The Sabres unveiled their new third jersey but looked like the same old team despite taking an early lead.
“There’s certain moments in seasons that things actually start changing,” coach Ted Nolan said. “We haven’t hit that. I know it’s very frustrating.”
The energy boost that accompanied the arrival of Nolan and Pat LaFontaine, the president of hockey operations, is gone. The losses remain.
“Nothing is going to come with the first day,” Girgensons said. “It’s not like a couple people are going to come in and everything is just going to switch around. It’s going to take time, patience.”
The Sabres couldn’t keep up with Detroit on the ice or the scoreboard. The Red Wings scored twice in the third period to snap a 1-1 tie, including the winner from Johan Franzen with 8:17 to go.
Franzen’s goal, which glanced off Buffalo defenseman Alexander Sulzer before eluding goalie Ryan Miller, came on the second of back-to-back power plays. Opponents have beaten the Sabres’ penalty-kill unit five times in four games.
While it’s a point of concern, a bigger problem is Buffalo’s inability to sustain momentum.
Cody Hodgson scored 7:47 into the game – sending Buffalo into the first intermission with a lead for only the second time in 25 games – but Detroit entered the dressing room feeling better. The Red Wings outshot Buffalo, 14-6, and Darren Helm followed up by scoring just 30 seconds into the second period.
“We came out really strong, and then we let them take over the period,” Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers said. “The way we’re handling those situations, you can tell we take our foot off the gas a bit. We have spurts where we feel like we’re outplaying them, taking it to them, then we back off a little bit because maybe we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves. We have to continue that play throughout the entire period, the entire game.”
Steve Ott had a chance to put Buffalo back in front midway through the second. Hooked on a breakaway, Ott was awarded a penalty shot. Gustavsson tracked the captain and stopped Buffalo’s first penalty shot since Feb. 19, 2012.
Franzen capitalized on his power-play chance, and longtime nemesis Daniel Alfredsson – pushed into action because of Datsyuk’s head injury – scored into an empty net with 48.2 seconds to send home the announced crowd of 18,721.
“They get momentum, and we look like we’re tired,” Nolan said. “It’s a state of mind. We’ve just got to change a little bit of things moving forward.”
Nolan and the coaching staff have another two-day break to implement game plans and correct mistakes. The Sabres return to the ice Wednesday when they host Montreal.
“We’re playing better as a team,” Hodgson said. “There’s definitely some bright spots – look at our starts, look at the physical play and the way we’re working – but at the end of the day we want to win games. It’s tough.”