20231214 Benson

DENVER – The Buffalo Sabres were unable to overcome an early three-goal deficit in what ended as a 5-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche inside Ball Arena on Wednesday.

The Avalanche accounted for the first nine shots of the game and led 3-0 on goals from Mikko Rantanen, Valeri Nichushkin, and Miles Wood. They led 15-1 in shots before Rasmus Dahlin created a rebound to set up Zach Benson’s goal with 1:27 remaining in the first period.

“We didn’t work hard enough,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “Period.”

Don Granato addresses the media

The Sabres entered the night with a 2-0-1 record in their last three games. They outshot their opponents by a combined count of 49-17 during the first periods of those contests.

The Avalanche were the early aggressors Wednesday. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, playing for the first time since Dec. 3 due to an illness, had already made multiple saves in tight by the time Rantanen opened the scoring on a wrap-around attempt 5:25 into the contest.  

Nichushkin – who was the victim of two early stops by Luukkonen – scored to double the lead to end a long shift spent in the Buffalo zone. Miles Wood added the third goal 1:27 later, keeping the puck on a 2-on-1 rush and burying his wrist shot from the right faceoff circle.

“They came out buzzing and we came out super flat,” defenseman Erik Johnson said. “When you’re down three nothing against a team like that, it’s going to be tough.”

The Sabres did string together a run of their own beginning with Benson’s goal, which ignited a series of 18 consecutive shots that lasted deep into the second period. They were unsuccessful on two power plays during that stretch, and the Avalanche pulled away in the third period on goals from Sam Malinski and Nichushkin.

“(We) simplified,” forward Alex Tuch said. “Just started working for one another, working as a five-man unit. Forwards were covering defensemen, defensemen were up in the play, being aggressive. It made our forecheck easier, made their transition a lot harder.

“We were able to do that for some time but then it fell apart again in the third and we were back on our heels, and we just ran out of gas, honestly. But we got to start better.”

Here’s more from the loss in Colorado.

1. Jeff Skinner sustained an upper-body injury during the second period and did not return for the third. Skinner originally left for the dressing room following a hit along the boards from Nathan MacKinnon but returned for two more shifts before exiting again with nine minutes remaining in the second.

2. Johnson returned to Ball Arena for the first time since departing the Avalanche to sign a one-year contract with the Sabres on July 1. The defenseman spent 13 seasons in Colorado, including a Stanley Cup championship in 2022.

Johnson was applauded by fans during warmups when the video board showed injured Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog along the glass with his daughter, who was holding a sign that read, “We still love you, Uncle EJ.” A video tribute aired during the first TV timeout, prompting the defenseman to skate to center ice and wave to the applauding crowd.

“It was amazing,” Johnson said. “I mean, the whole night. I just tried to soak it all in. Just felt numb all game. It was surreal. ... I wish the outcome was different for our team, but just coming back here was special.”

Erik Johnson addresses the media

3. Tuch was in the lineup for the first time since sustaining an injury against Nashville on Dec. 3. Mattias Samuelsson also returned after missing Monday’s win over Arizona with an injury.

The Sabres loaned forward Brett Murray to Rochester to make room on the roster for Tuch to be activated from injured reserve.

Up next

The road trip continues Friday night in Vegas. The pregame show on MSG/MSG+ begins at 9:30 p.m. with puck drop scheduled for 10. Radio coverage can be found on WGR 550.