As Jhonas Enroth looked around the Sabres’ dressing room Sunday night, the organizational changes were obvious. Huge photos of departed teammates had been stripped from the walls, with the empty spaces reminding everyone of Buffalo’s recent roster upheaval.
“There’s a lot of new guys in here,” Enroth noted. “I haven’t even talked to everyone yet. It’s a different feeling. It’s kind of a weird time right now, but I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”
Despite their unfamiliarity with each other, the last-place Sabres stuck together against Chicago and entered the third period in a 1-1 tie with the defending champion.
“One of the best teams in the league, and we know how the year’s gone for us,” right wing Drew Stafford said. “A lot of people might’ve written us off for this game, but we kind of wanted to prove that we can still make it a tough game for them.”
It’s hard to contain the Blackhawks, though, and one mistake can make the difference. It did Sunday.
Chicago captain Jonathan Toews spun away from defenseman Jamie McBain just 1:34 into the third period, and that was all the Blackhawks needed to break the deadlock and earn a 2-1 victory in First Niagara Center.
“One of our guys just let one of the premier players in the league go for a half-second, two seconds, and it’s in your net,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. “Those are the type of things that hopefully our young players on this team realize. It’s not a sometime thing, winning. It’s a full-time thing. If you lay off the gas pedal or you have one bad shift or two, it’s going to come and bite you pretty good.”
Despite the setback, the Sabres can feel good about the night. Chicago’s two previous victims, Pittsburgh and Columbus, fell by a combined score of 11-2.
“Going tied in the third was good, and we felt good about ourselves,” defenseman Christian Ehrhoff said. “We hung in there. It was something we can build on.”
The Sabres fell for the third time in four games despite another solid effort by Enroth. The goaltender made 29 saves as Chicago outshot the Sabres, 31-21.
“He was making a lot of big saves for us,” Stafford said. “One simple kind of breakdown, and it ends up in the back of our net. It’s definitely frustrating because I thought we played another solid game.”
Andrew Shaw started the winning play with a cross-ice pass to Brandon Saad, which drew Enroth to his right. Saad quickly went back across the ice to Toews, who was left alone at the side of the crease for his sixth goal in the last four games.
The locals who came to see Patrick Kane return with Chicago and Cory Conacher debut with the Sabres cheered them both in the opening 10 minutes.
Kane brought the hundreds of fans wearing his No. 88 jersey out of their seats with just 3:12 gone, putting home the type of highlight reel goal he scored in rinks throughout Western New York while growing up.
Skating down the right wing, Kane pushed a loose puck past Ehrhoff and quickly retrieved it. From the center of the Sabres’ zone, Kane put a shot through defenseman Chad Ruhwedel’s legs and over Enroth’s shoulder.
It was exactly what most of the 19,070 people in the building hoped to see from Kane, who hadn’t scored since Feb. 3.
“I’ve got to give it to him,” Enroth said. “He shot it right between Rudy’s legs there and right between my glove and head, so it was a pretty good shot.”
Conacher helped even the score with 9:11 off the clock. The Canisius College graduate went around goalie Corey Crawford, but his shot slid through the empty crease. Stafford made sure it found the net for his seventh goal.
Penalties and a punchless power play prevented the Sabres from scoring again. They went to the box five times and went 0 for 5 with the man advantage. Combine those totals with one defensive lapse, and there’s little chance of beating the champs.
The Sabres stayed close, though. They’ll get to know each other better Tuesday when they host Nashville.
“I don’t think Chicago really wanted to play,” Enroth said, “but we feel pretty good about ourselves. We played a pretty solid game.”