Two allowed goals in a lopsided first period proved insurmountable for the Sabres against Roberto Luongo and the Florida Panthers in a 2-0 loss Friday night at First Niagara Center. The shutout was Luongo’s second of the season, both against Buffalo.
Brad Boyes opened the scoring less than five minutes into the game. The puck was stolen from Sabres defenseman Tyson Strachan behind the net and flung towards Boyes, who tipped in his seventh goal of the season. Nick Bjugstad added a goal for the Panthers on a Florida power play later in the period, but it proved only to be insurance against a stifled Buffalo offense.
“I think that first goal is really the back-breaker,” Strachan said afterward.“We talked about playing 60 minutes and coming out and getting good starts and I don’t bear down on the puck, it ends up in the back of the net.”
Buffalo was outshot 19-7 in that first period. Their play improved in the following two periods, both in which they outshot Florida, but the team never recovered from their slow start.
“Unfortunately this game is a 60-minute game and one bad period is real tough to catch up from. Our first period was god-awful,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. “The effort was there in the second and the third but we just blew the game in the first.”
Buffalo’s only real scoring chance in the opening period came off of the stick of Tyler Ennis on a dash towards the net that ultimately missed the target. Ennis had another opportunity thwarted by Luongo in the second period, but his hustle never wavered.
“Luongo made a couple good saves; we needed to score. I think when it’s not going in you need to compete in all areas and give that extra percent,” Ennis said.
“Tyler and [Zemgus] Girgensons, from the start of the season outside of maybe a couple of bad periods here and there, they’ve been our most consistent and best players so far for sure,” Nolan said.
Michal Neuvirth got his first start in net for the Sabres since allowing six goals in Detroit on Dec. 23. He made 31 saves on 33 shots against and was proud of his ability to keep focus after allowing two tough goals early on.
“He made some really big saves for us,” Nolan said. “It could’ve been three or 4-0 in the first period … like I said, we can’t complain about the goaltending.”
ROBBED BY ROBERTO
For as good as the Sabres have been at home these past few months, Luongo has to feel equally comfortable on the First Niagara Center ice. Friday night marked his third-straight shutout in the arena and his fourth in his last five games against Buffalo.
Luongo posted two shutouts against the Sabres last year as a member of the Vancouver Canucks and another on Oct. 17 in a 1-0 Buffalo loss to the Panthers. The Sabres finally got to him with a pair of goals in a 3-2 loss on Dec. 9 in Florida. His .940 save percentage in 21 career games against the Sabres entering Friday night is his second-highest against any opponent, second only to the .946 save percentage he holds against his current team.
“Yeah, that’s pretty crazy,” Strachan said.“It’s not something we talk about that much, but he’s a great goalie and we know that he’s one of those guys you’re probably not going to beat if he gets to see the puck. So he’s one of those guys we need to get people to the net, get a lot of rubber at him and hope for some rebounds.”
Two of Buffalo’s best chances on Friday came roughly one minute apart from one another midway through the second period and Luongo was at his best for both. He made a left-pad save to block the open net on a backhand attempt from Ennis and then deflected a shot from a wide-open Patrick Kaleta following a Panthers turnover.
In the last two minutes, he survived an onslaught of shots in a last-ditch effort by the Sabres to get on the board. Luongo would finish with 30 saves on the night.
The Sabres entered the game having given up five power play goals in their last four games – four against Detroit on Dec. 23 and another against Tampa Bay on Wednesday. Their woes continued Friday as they allowed an easy goal on Florida’s only power play of the game.
“The power play, we go to it over and over and over again,” Nolan said. “It was a shorthanded situation and we misread that and just let them walk in.”
After the game, Strachan pointed to the loss of defenseman Tyler Myers as a potential reason for their recent struggles on the penalty kill. Myers has missed the last six games with a lower body injury he sustained on Dec. 20 against Colorado.
“I think [Myers] logs a lot of minutes on the PK and he’s a fantastic penalty killer. We’ve just got to bear down when we get into penalty problems and most importantly stay out of the box.”
The Sabres play next on Saturday night against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden at 7 p.m.