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Smith earns point in debut, but Sabres fall to Isles

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

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, 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."

Video: BUF Recap: Kane, Girgensons score in 4-2 loss

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. 

"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."

Bylsma said he saw a bit of rustiness from his team, which had gone four days without a game, in the first. The Sabres were outshot 12-6 in the period, but the only goal they gave up came from Cal Clutterbuck on the rush and was one that Lehner took full responsibility for.

Lehner's night ended with 22 saves on 26 shots. His Islanders counterpart, Jaroslav Halak, stopped 35 shots.

"I've got to I've the guys credit, I thought we had a good game," Lehner said. "Their first goal shouldn't happen. I was caught cheating a little bit and it happens sometimes. It's hockey, it's a game of mistakes. I've just got to be better and at the end of the day we've got a new game tomorrow."


Smith's debut

Ho-Sang's breakaway goal in the second period actually interrupted the cheers for Smith's first NHL point, having come just 56 seconds after Smith fed Kane to tie the game at 2-2. Similarly, the outcome of the game put a bit of a damper on Smith's reaction to what was an otherwise memorable debut.

"A little more relaxed after that one," he said. "Hopefully a better response tomorrow."

Kane did do his fair share of work on his goal - he made the entry pass to Smith from his own blue line, and then raced by the entire defense to create a 2-on-1 rush - but the goal wouldn't have been possible if not for Smith's nifty backhand feed across the net:

Video: NYI@BUF: Kane wrists home Smith's feed on two-on-one

Smith also made a good play later in the game to deke around a defender in the offensive zone and find an oncoming Evan Rodrigues in the slot, which led to Rodrigues drawing a penalty. He eventually found himself playing on a line with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart in the third period.

"I thought in the second and in the third he showed some jump, showed some shiftiness," Bylsma said. "He made the nice read on stepping into the middle, Evander gave him the puck and it turned into a 2-on-1."

In all, Smith skated 9:57 with two shots on goal and the assist. 

"The first period I felt like I was a little tense but once I was able to start moving my feet, find some time and space, I felt like the game got a little better," he said.


Notes and numbers

Girgensons' goal, which came on tip to end a good rush play between him and Matt Moulson, ended a 23-game goal-scoring drought for the 23-year-old forward. You can watch the play below:

Video: NYI@BUF: Girgensons redirects Moulson's perfect feed

"It's been a little stretch without one but I've played pretty decent so I was just waiting for that one to pop in," Girgensons said.

Meanwhile, a couple of things that we've become accustomed to seeing happen on offense for the Sabres ended up not happening in this one. The first was a point from Jack Eichel, who has now gone two games without a point for the first time since Jan. 31 and Feb. 2, according to Sabres PR.

The other was a power-play goal from Buffalo's top-ranked unit, which went 0-for-4 on the night. It was the first time since Feb. 19 that Buffalo's power play had four or more opportunities and didn't manage to score, and snapped a stretch of three straight games with a power-play goal.


Up next

The Sabres will conclude their back-to-back set at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night. It will be the fifth and final meeting between the two teams this season.

Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with the Tops Pregame Show on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops between the Sabres and Maple Leafs at 7 p.m.

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