They fought to the bitter end – be it a last-minute goal from Zach Bogosian or a decision by Rasmus Ristolainen to block a hard shot on an empty net in the dying seconds – but ultimately the Buffalo Sabres couldn’t overcome a slow second period in their 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday afternoon at First Niagara Center.
Bogosian stepped up from a production standpoint, factoring in on all three of Buffalo's goals with shots from the point. He scored twice himself, once in the first period and again with 22 seconds remaining, and earned an assist when captain Brian Gionta tipped his shot into the net on the power play in the third.
"It'd feel a lot nicer if I got the win," Bogosian said. "I've been trying to get my shots through lately and it seemed to pay off a little bit but in the end we want to get the win.
The defenseman recorded his 24th career multi-point game and fourth career three-point game. His last three-point effort came on March 30, 2012 at Carolina when he was with the Winnipeg Jets.
Robin Lehner made 27 saves in the loss for the Sabres, who were outshot 31-27. Patric Hornqvist, Scott Wilson, Phil Kessel and Matt Cullen all scored goals for the Penguins, while defenseman Kris Letang tallied two assists.
The Sabres played without center Ryan O'Reilly, who missed the game due to a lower-body injury sustained in the team's win on Friday. In his postgame press conference, Sabres coach Dan Bylsma announced O'Reilly will be out 3-to-4 weeks.
LACK OF CONSISTENCY
After coming out of the first period tied 1-1 with a commanding 15-6 lead in shots, things went awry for the Sabres in the second. They were outshot 16-6 and allowed two Pittsburgh goals, to Wilson and Kessel, trailing 3-1 by the time the horn sounded.
"That's what killed us," Bogosian said. "We were turning over pucks a lot in the second and we weren't going north, I think we were trying to be a little too cute in the danger areas and it came back to bite us."
The Sabres had killed 40 seconds of 5-on-3 play to end the first and killed another 1:17 of 5-on-4 coming out of intermission. With Bogosian's power-play goal already under their belt, they looked poised to take the lead when Olli Maatta was called for interference 4:45 into the second.
Jack Eichel was called for cross-checking just 26 seconds after Maatta went into the box, however, and Letang found Wilson with a pass across the net to set up the go-ahead goal 16 seconds into four-on-four play. Johan Larsson was playing without a stick at the time of Wilson's goal.
"It ends up being a 4-on-3 and probably ends up being the most disappointing goal of the game," Bylsma said. "That was a big turning point in the game."
Letang stuck again later in the period, finding Kessel alone to the right of the net. Kessel got Lehner to bite on a shot fake before burying a wrister for a 3-1 lead with 2:10 remaining in the period.
"Those two in particular on the second and third goal weren’t the only times he found guys," Bylsma said of Letang. "He's a dynamic player offensively with his skating ability and pretty much shows it every game."
A Sabres power play had a negative opposite effect again in the third when Cullen took the puck away from Ristolainen at center ice and beat Lehner on a breakaway. Lehner stretched across the net and initially thought he had made the save, but the puck trickled behind him.
Gionta scored 12 seconds later, but Cullen's goal ultimately proved to be the winner.
"It's unfortunate because I felt like I played that well and I wanted to make that stop for the team," Lehner said.
On the flip side, the Sabres went 4-for-4 on the penalty kill, improving to 57-for-62 (91.9 percent) in their last 21 games, dating back to Jan. 5 against Florida. The team has killed each of its 18 penalties in the last four games.
Justin Bailey was recalled to play his fifth NHL game in the wake of O'Reilly's injury and had multiple scoring chances in the first period. Bylsma said afterward that he was pleased with the rookie's performance on a line with Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart, who moved back to center.
"I thought that line in the first was real good, and Justin with his speed and his size, I liked his game quite a bit," Bylsma said. "His speed is evident and against a team that has a lot of speed, he was a guy who showed that skating ability and put pressure on them tonight with that."
GOING TO CALI
The Sabres begin a three-game road trip in California against the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday night. Buffalo took the first matchup between the two teams this season 3-0 on Dec. 17.
Coverage on Wednesday begins at 10 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Bell TV. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550.