Smith earns point in debut, but Sabres fall to Isles
It’s an old cliché, but sometimes quality really is more important than quantity. That was certainly true on Sunday afternoon for the Buffalo Sabres, who out-chanced and outshot the New York Islanders at KeyBank Center only to fall by a score of 4-2.
Ask Dan Bylsma jersey, and he’ll tell you that Joshua Ho-Sang’s goal in the second period was a microcosm of the game. At one point in that period, shots were 15-1 in favor of the Sabres. Unfortunately for them, that one shot happened to be a breakaway for the Islanders’ talented rookie.
“The rough count during the game, we had them at 10 chances, which would be our lowest in 30 games,” Bylsma said. “The second period’s kind of indicative of how the game went. We had 15 shots and they had one, but their one was a turnover and a breakaway that Ho-Sang scored on.”
Even so, the Sabres nearly survived. Evander Kane had scored less than a minute prior to Ho-Sang’s goal (with an assist from C.J. Smith, who was making his NHL debut), and Zemgus Girgensons scored at 5:17 to tie the game at 2-2.
The Sabres outshot the islanders 16-6 in the third period, but two of those six shots stemmed from turnovers on breakout passes from around their own net, both of which turned into goals for New York’s Anders Lee. Those two goals proved to be the difference in the game.
Lee’s first goal began with a pass from Dmitry Kulikov that caromed hard off the skate of Anthony Beauvillier. The puck flew in the direction of Sabres goalie Robin Lehner, who, in an effort to prevent it from reaching the back door, slapped it out of midair.
The puck landed at Lee’s feet in the high slot, from where he beat Lehner for what ended up standing as the game-winning goal. Lehner said he was screened by net-front traffic on the play.
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“I’m trying to get it away,” Lehner said. “I have that shot 100 out of 100 times if I see it. We can twist and turn it how much we want. If I see it, I’ll save it.”
A bit more than five minutes later, Jake McCabe attempted a breakout pass from behind the Buffalo net only to see it get intercepted by Lee at the goal line. Lee spun and beat Lehner with a backhand shot, which capped the scoring with 5:27 left in the game.
“I thought we had plenty of chances to get more than two goals today but they were relentless on their forecheck and I think that was the difference of the game,” Girgensons said. “They were on us, we turned some pucks over in our zone and that cost us the game.”
Buffalo coach Dan Bylsma pulled Lehner after he allowed three goals on five shots.
Nilsson made 39 saves on 40 shots for the Sabres (32-35-12), who have lost three straight games.
Ryan O’Reilly made it 3-1 with a shorthanded goal at 1:51 of the second period. He received a pass from Brian Gionta and skated up the right wing before beating Andersen over his shoulder for his 20th goal.
Nazem Kadri made it 4-1 with a power-play goal at 5:50 of the third period. He received a pass from Mitchell Marner and beat Nilsson through the five-hole for his 31st goal.
Jack Eichel scored his 24th goal on a breakaway with 56 seconds remaining to make it 4-2.
“I’m just disappointed in myself; I’ve got to be better, I’ve got to lead better, I’ve got to step up, and going forward I’ve got to expect more out of myself,” Eichel said.
Sabres forward Alexander Nylander made his NHL debut after he was recalled from Rochester of the American Hockey League on Monday. Nylander was the No. 8 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, two years after Toronto selected his brother, William Nylander, with the eighth pick.
“We’ve got to play a little more urgent,” Gionta added. “I know it’s the last couple of games coming down the stretch but everyone’s got something to play for here.”
That showed in the play of Malone, a sixth-round pick by the Sabres in 2013 who was just two days removed from playing his final collegiate game for Harvard, a heartbreaking loss to Minnesota Duluth in the Frozen Four. Malone skated 12:12, had two shot attempts and won five of his eight faceoffs centering a line with Zemgus Girgensons and Nicolas Deslauriers.
“I thought it was pretty solid,” Bylsma said of Malone’s debut. “I thought that line was probably our best line all game long. Sean and Nic and Zemgus were all a part of that. He showed himself just fine. I liked the way he supported the D-zone, I liked the way he made outlet passes there in the first.”
Malone said his nerves calmed following his first shift, but he still saw room for improvement.
“There were a couple bounces I would’ve liked to have back,” he said. “There was one play I was down low and tried feeding it in front to Zemgus right there in front of the net and I just missed a little bit. It’s just little things like that that I think will come with time and confidence.”
With one more game remaining in Tampa on Sunday – which will be another contest with no playoff implications after Toronto’s come-from-behind win over Pittsburgh eliminated the Lightning on Saturday – the job for each Sabre will be to find their own reasons to bring the intensity in their season finale.
“At the end of the day, as I said, there’s a lot of new guys up here,” Lehner said. “People are trying to show themselves, that they can play here. As I’ve said before, people are playing for spots. People are playing for spots whether it’s for this team or around this league. You can’t just throw your skates on, you’ve got to show what you’re made of.
“We’ve got to play for our logo too. Make no mistake, people in the stands see who wants it and who doesn’t.”