It was another loss for the Buffalo Sabres, but the final couple of weeks of a lost season is all about silver linings. And at least the 4-3 overtime defeat Saturday night to Tampa Bay produced some of those from players who have a future in this organization:
• Center Zemgus Girgensons returned from an 11-game absence and singlehandedly created Cody Hodgson’s first-period goal with some dogged forechecking in the Tampa Bay zone.
• Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen logged 24 minutes, 45 seconds of ice time, smashing his previous career high of 21:54. He had the second-highest ice time figure for either team, behind only Christian Ehrhoff’s 26:06.
• Ristolainen and center Johan Larsson both notched assists, giving them points in consecutive games for the first time in their careers. Only a quick stick from Tampa Bay defenseman Eric Brewer prevented Larsson from scoring a go-ahead goal with three minutes left.
“The effort was there. You look at certain things,” said coach Ted Nolan. “… The bright light of Girgensons back in the lineup and Ristolainen too. Going forward you see some bright lights.”
Girgensons centered Buffalo’s second line, with Hodgson moving back to the wing and forming the trio with Brian Flynn. Nolan said Hodgson had one of his best games of the season, in addition to breaking his 12-game goal drought.
The Sabres’ second goal was vintage Girgensons, as he harassed Tampa Bay defenseman Mike Kostka in the Lightning end for several seconds. Girgensons finally pried the puck away to Ehrhoff at the point and his shot was deflected home by Hodgson.
“It was just a bit tiring but besides that I felt pretty good,” Girgensons said. “I think our line generated some good offense.”
The Larsson play nearly resulted in the 21-year-old’s first goal of his NHL career. He had most of the net to shoot at before Brewer thwarted him at the last second by tipping the puck over the glass.
“A little bit more experience, a little bit more strength and those things go in,” Nolan said. “Overall, I thought Larsson played a strong game for us. These are games you evaluate your situation and see who’s going to respond and battle.”
The Sabres were strong for the first 18 minutes of the game, a far cry from the 4-0 meltdown in the first period Thursday at Nashville that produced an ugly 6-1 loss.
“I’m proud of the guys in here for at least coming out and having a better effort than Nashville,” said winger Drew Stafford. “We can at least take that. We really wanted to stay as positive as we could.
“It’s one of those things where we may be 30th place but we can’t act like a 30th-place team with our body language and our attitude sometimes on the bench. You get frustration creeping into your game, a lot of negativity, and everyone kind of picks up on that and it becomes kind of toxic.”
Center Mikhail Grigorenko has been transferred to Rochester now that his junior season with the Quebec Remparts is complete. Grigorenko had 39 points in 23 games for Quebec (15 goals, 24 assists) and also had nine points (1g, 8a) in its five-game playoff loss to Rouyn-Noranda.
Grigorenko played 18 games with the Sabres this year, with two goals and three points. He did not impress Nolan or then-hockey operations president Pat LaFontaine and agreed to return to junior in mid-January after initially declining the assignment.
Rochester is off until hosting Syracuse on Wednesday in Blue Cross Arena. The Amerks are 0-7-2 in their last nine games and entered Sunday three points out of the final playoff spot in the AHL’s Western Conference. They have nine games left.
The Sabres took Sunday off and will return to practice today. There are only three home games left and the first is when New Jersey plays here Tuesday night.
The Devils will be on a back-to-back, as they host Florida tonight at 7:30 (NBCSN).
The Devils suffered a 2-1 loss Saturday night to the New York Islanders, extending their NHL record by losing their 14th straight shootout. They are 0-10 this year – and have scored on just one of 30 attempts. The shootout woes are a big reason the Devils are five points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
After losing the Stanley Cup final to Los Angeles in 2012, the Devils are closing in on missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since the first five years after the franchise relocated from Colorado to New Jersey in 1982.