The Buffalo Sabres lost a close 3-1 contest at home against the Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday afternoon. The defeat looms large in the standings, as the Sabres had a chance to get within five points of the current wild card spot holders. Instead, the Lightning walk away nine points ahead of Buffalo in the standings.
Early turnovers are the story in this one, as the Sabres coughed up two first period turnovers that ended up in the back of the net. The first goal ended up on the stick of Anthony Cirelli, who slid it over to Brandon Hagel in the slot. Hagel made a nifty turn to find an open Nick Paul, who buried one past Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
The goal promptly stopped the Finnish goalie’s shutout streak.
Less than a minute later, the Sabres were awarded a powerplay. Almost immediately, they turned it over to the Lightning at the offensive blueline. Tyler Motte rushed down the wing after tipping the puck into the neutral zone and put it by Luukkonen.
Dylan Cozens cut the lead in half after being reunited with linemates JJ Peterka and Jack Quinn in the second period, but the Sabres couldn’t find another answer before surrendering an empty net goal to Tampa’s Calvin de Haan.
The Sabres as a whole defended really well. The Lightning were limited to only 16 shots on goal. 14 of the 18 Buffalo skaters were on the plus-side of shot attempts in the game. The same can be said for shot quality.
Jonas Johansson gets the prize as the biggest impact player almost by default, as he was good in net when his team was not going very well. Still, the Sabres only generated 1.85 expected goals against the Lightning goalie per Evolving-Hockey. That’s not enough for Buffalo to deserve a win by any standard.
Turnovers ended up being the difference in the game. When a contest is as uneventful as Saturday’s game was, the little blunders become major. Further, when two of those blunders end up in the back of the net, the game is changed instantly.
Speaking of little blunders, the refs did the Sabres no favors in the third period. With 8:04 remaining in the third, Buffalo drew a tripping call to have a chance of tying the game up with the man-advantage.
On the ensuing powerplay, Zach Benson poked at the puck just after Johansson covered it with his glove. The Lightning took exception, as did the in-zone referee, apparently. Benson was called for slashing to negate the powerplay.
For context on the Benson “slashing” call pic.twitter.com/EYuVwmN3RJ
— Jason Moser 🏒 (@PuckLuckJay) January 20, 2024
Post-game, head coach Don Granato said he “hadn’t seen that called all year long” and referenced Tage Thompson getting held up earlier in the same powerplay as something the refs let go.
With the January homestand wrapped up, the Sabres will head out west. Tuesday begins a California road trip, beginning with the Ducks in Anaheim. The Ducks are 2-7-1 in their last 10, and their -39 goal-differential is three times as much as Buffalo’s.