DETROIT — It was a gritty effort on the road against a team desperately looking to lock up a playoff spot.
It was a display of that classic hockey cliche “compete level” that had the Buffalo Sabres knocking on the comeback doorstep in the third period.
Only problem was that first period. Which was bad. Very bad.
And in the end the effort fell short as the Buffalo Sabres dropped a 3-2 decision to the Detroit Red Wings in Joe Louis Arena on Friday night.
The loss officially clinched last place in the National Hockey League for the Sabres. Bottom of the barrel. Thirtieth out of 30 teams. It’s the first time the Sabres have finished last in the league since the 1986-87 season.
It’s a dubious distinction, albeit one that comes with promise. The Sabres now have the best chance (25 percent) in the NHL lottery for the overall No. 1 draft pick in June.
The Sabres spent much of the first 20 minutes of Friday’s game trying to stop the bleeding.
The literal bleeding came when Luke Adam, on an emergency call-up from Rochester, took a slap shot in the face just 10:34 into the game. He left in the first period but returned in the second period after having the cut attended to on his jaw.
The figurative bleeding resulted from some bad defensive play and a general slow start that saw Matt Hackett give up three goals on 12 first-period shots – to Darren Helm, Tomas Jurco and Daniel Afredsson.
But the Sabres regrouped, made a few adjustments and mostly refocused their attitude and approach to play noticeably in the second and actually control some of the play in the third.
“I think it was more of a mental approach,” coach Ted Nolan said. “And plus we had to start going north-south with the puck. The first little bit we were starting to do those fancy plays and cross-ice passes and Detroit’s too good of a team to do that.
“So we talked about a couple things. About stopping and starting in our defensive zone. Moving from north to south and then trying to keep the simple play. Along with the mental approach we did a few things tactically.”
With a bit more aggression, the Sabres got on the board in the second with a power-play goal. Jamie McBain found room to the left of Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard and buried his opportunity for his fifth goal of the season.
Chad Ruhwedel had the first assist, and his first point in the National Hockey League.
Nick Deslauriers scored his first NHL goal at 6:40 of the third, snapping in the puck after Johan Larsson won the faceoff in the Detroit zone.
“I think everybody knew what we had to do. Just shoot the puck,” Deslauriers said. “They’re a good team and if you let them enter the zone three-on-two they have a chance to put a good shot on net or do something good. Just all the forwards were tracking back and helping our D’s. That’s what we did the last two periods.”
Hackett improved his play as well, making 19 saves over the final 40 minutes to keep the Red Wings off the board.
It was a key win for Detroit, which is battling for its 23rd straight playoff appearance. The Red Wings moved three games in front of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the wild card race.
Next up for the Sabres is a trip to Philadelphia on Sunday for a 7:30 p.m. game against the Flyers at Wells Fargo Center.
The Sabres then return to Buffalo for another meeting with the Red Wings at 7 p.m. Tuesday in First Niagara Center.