SUNRISE, Fla. - In a loss that Robin Lehner, Brian Gionta and Dan Bylsma all admitted lacked a level of intensity from the Buffalo Sabres, perhaps it's no surprise that it was a line centered by a player making his NHL debut that Bylsma said stood out the most.
Jonathan Huberdeau scored two goals for the Panthers, Nick Bjugstad added another and James Reimer turned away all 30 of the shots that the Sabres threw at him in a 3-0 Florida win at BB&T Center, leaving a steady debut from West Seneca native Sean Malone as the lone silver lining for the Sabres.
"We didn't come out to play today so I don't think it was competitive," Lehner said. "I think they came out to play and we didn't have much today unfortunately."
The Sabres escaped the first period with the game still scoreless despite a couple of close calls on their own end, including a loose puck that the Panthers were unable to put into an open net and a breakaway attempt for Huberdeau that got past Lehner but died in the crease before it could cross the goal line.
It was Bjugstad who eventually opened the scoring with a quick shot that beat Lehner between the pads 7:46 into the second period. Huberdeau added to the lead before the end of the period when he barreled into the net with the puck on his stick, and banked another goal in off the leg of Rasmus Ristolainen in the third.
Lehner allowed three goals on 37 shots.
"I think the first and the third period they were in our end pretty much the whole time, circling our net, getting scoring chances," Lehner said. "I think the second period was kind of an off period, we have a couple of power plays, they have a couple ... It was a pretty bad game today."
Video: BUF@FLA: Lehner stops Matheson on a shorthanded rush
"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."
The Sabres will conclude their season against the Lightning in Tampa on Sunday evening. Coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. with the Tops Pregame Show on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops at 5 p.m.