UNIONDALE — The Sabres are halfway to proving they are indeed the worst team in the NHL.
Buffalo, in last place in the 30-team league, dropped a 4-1 decision to the 27th-place New York Islanders on Saturday night. The Sabres also lost to 28th-place Florida nine days ago, and they travel to Edmonton (29th) and Calgary (26th) this week.
A clean sweep would leave no doubt who deserves the best shot at winning the draft lottery next month.
The Sabres, who host Thomas Vanek and the Montreal Canadiens tonight, have lost five straight. They’ve totaled only five goals during the skid.
“Ninety-nine percent of the teams in this league jam the net, try to create some screens and fight for rebounds,” coach Ted Nolan said. “For whatever reason, we peel away. We review that over and over again. You have to have a certain pedigree to do that, and sometimes our players don’t want to do it.”
The latest setback started poorly. Frans Nielsen scored with just 3:31 off the clock, and Kyle Okposo made it 2-0 late in the first.
It remained that way through a scoreless second, but the Sabres came alive just 56 seconds into the final period. Drew Stafford and Tyler Ennis – the only players to reach the goal column in the last five games – combined on Ennis’ power-play goal to make it 2-1.
Before the tally was even announced, the Islanders had their two-goal lead back. Ryan Strome scored on a two-shot breakaway just 39 seconds later to draw cheers from the announced crowd of 14,388.
“The big killer was we get the first goal to make it 2-1, and the next shift we make another not very smart play,” Nolan said.
Cal Clutterbuck scored on an empty net with 2:13 remaining, ensuring the win for goaltender Anders Nilsson (33 saves). Buffalo’s Jhonas Enroth stopped 34 of 37 shots.
The most intriguing part of the Sabres’ night was a lineup tweak. Cody Hodgson, expected to be Buffalo’s first- or second-line center for years to come, moved to right wing with Brian Flynn playing in the middle.
Hodgson, in the first season of a six-year, $25.5 million contract, has just two goals and four assists in the last 15 games.
“He hasn’t been that offensive guy we want, and maybe spring him on the right side he can cheat offensively and take some chances,” Nolan said. “That didn’t work, either.”
Hodgson said he played a little wing with Vancouver and in juniors. “I’ve got to watch the game and see how I can generate more from that position,” he said.
The game featured the return of Rasmus Ristolainen, the Sabres’ top pick in last year’s draft. He was an emergency recall for injured defenseman Tyler Myers. Ristolainen opened the season in Buffalo but was sent to Rochester in mid-November when Nolan and Pat LaFontaine came in and put an end to the youth movement that saw four teenagers in the lineup.
Though Ristolainen was disappointed by the demotion, he’s come to learn it was a wise move.
“There’s been a lot of ice time,” said Ristolainen, who played in all situations during his 30 games with the Amerks and recorded six goals and 18 points. “I think I’m a way better player now. I’ve got more confidence. I’m getting better on the power play, PK, everything.”
That was the whole point of shipping Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov and Mikhail Grigorenko out of Buffalo.
“As coaches and managers, we’re almost like parents,” Nolan said. “Some kids think they’re 26 when they’re only 16 years old. They need guidance and they need direction.”