OTTAWA - If there was one moment to encapsulate the Buffalo Sabres' final game before the holiday break, it was a wrap-around opportunity Evan Rodrigues had in the third period.
The Sabres trailed, 2-1, and Rodrigues was toward the end of a long shift in the Ottawa zone. The puck slid through the blue paint behind goalie Craig Anderson as Rodrigues wrapped behind the Ottawa net, in perfect position to pounce at the other side.
Rodrigues timed it perfectly, only to see Anderson making a lunging stop with his blocker.
"He made the saves he needed to win the game," Rodrigues said afterward.
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That save was one of 43 the veteran Anderson made to lead the Senators to a 3-1 victory. The Sabres outshot the Senators, 44-29, with 19 of those shots coming in the final 20 minutes, yet their only goal came on a feed from Rodrigues to Zemgus Girgensons in the second period.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored twice for the Senators, including the game-winner at 5:16 of the third period. Brady Tkachuk buried an empty-netter to complete a three-point night, which included the primary assists on both Pageau goals.
The Sabres entered the contest looking to build on their 3-2 victory at home over Los Angeles on Saturday. They began the night with good stretches of possession in the Senators zone, though coach Ralph Krueger felt they initially lacked the net-front presence to capitalize.
"The 25 scoring chances and the 44 shots speak for themselves," Krueger said. "I think Anderson had a world-class game today and we had good control early in the game, but we weren't creating the net pressure we should have out of the puck control we had, and they were opportunistic on their chances."
Pageau opened the scoring with 53.2 seconds remaining in the first period, burying a one-timer fed by Tkachuk from the corner. The Sabres began to attack the net more in the second, eventually connecting on Girgensons' deflection from the slot.
According to NaturalStatTrick.com, high-danger attempts at 5-on-5 during the second and third periods were in Buffalo's favor by a tally of 10-3. With Anderson in net, it didn't matter.
Before his blocker save in the third, Anderson delivered a poke check to stifle Rodrigues on a power play in the second. When the Sabres got bodies in front, Anderson evaded the traffic and swallowed shots without allowing second chances.
"I thought we went really a long stretch there without giving up any big chances," Krueger said. "In the end, it's failed opportunity. We just didn't use the opportunities we created and we had. Anderson was as good as it gets, and we just need to regroup.
"Our goal as a team is to be in every game as much as we can. We were definitely in this one, and we have to take the good things with us, and we have to believe that more often than not we win a game like today."
Linus Ullmark was strong in his own right throughout a 27-save performance. He stopped a Connor Brown breakaway in the first period and robbed Tyler Ennis with his pad on a power play in the second.
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Even on Pageau's game-winning goal, Ullmark was able to make the initial save as the diminutive centerman cut across the blue pain. Pageau stuck with his rebound as it drifted wide of the net and buried the puck off his backhand.
The Sabres have three days off for the holiday, a welcomed break from what's been a grueling schedule since their return from Sweden. Their 21 games since Nov. 14 are the most in the NHL. They've had two days between games on just three occasions in that span, all of which included travel days.
While none of the players who spoke after the game found any consolation in their third-period push, Krueger put the first 38 games in perspective. He was disappointed with the result, yes, but remained optimistic about the bigger picture.
"For us, the important thing at this point in time is to be a part of the race," he said. "We're definitely there, because we believe we're only going to get better here. We believe we're going to improve and we're going to get stronger as this season builds.
"So, to be in the mix like we are now is what we need to take with [us]. We have three days to take a deep breath and back at it we go. Right back into the race, which we're having a lot of fun doing it. Out of painful days like today, we tend to grow. So, I'm sure we will this time too."
Girgensons finds chemistry with Rodrigues and Sheary
Girgensons' goal was his sixth in 38 contests this season, already surpassing his 72-game total from last season. He scored seven goals in each of the three seasons prior.
The goal was a product of a drive to the net (along with good hand-eye coordination). Evan Rodrigues carried the puck into the offensive zone and maintained possession after taking a hip check along the boards. With the puck on his backhand, Rodrigues waited a beat and lofted a pass to the slot.
Girgensons drove between two defenders and connected with the pass, deflecting it over Anderson's shoulder.
Video: BUF@OTT: Girgensons tips Rodrigues' pass home
"I saw him coming and I was just kind of putting it there," Rodrigues said. "He's obviously a big body and strong on the puck so I thought if I just put it there you never know what could happen. Obviously, it turned out to be a good play."
After beginning the night on a line with Curtis Lazar and Rasmus Asplund, Girgensons moved permanently to a line with Rodrigues and Sheary in the third period. They were a consistent presence in the Ottawa zone, including on the shift that ended with Anderson's blocker stop.
Rodrigues finished the night with a game-high six shots. Girgensons and Sheary had two each.
"We thought Rodrigues and Sheary answered the bell today," Krueger said. "They brought in a lot of energy, they brought some speed with them. With Z in there, there was something special going on. They scored the one goal and created multiple opportunities. That's something that's exciting out of the game today."
Okposo sits due to illness
Kyle Okposo did not play due to an illness. The Sabres dressed 11 forwards and seven defensemen in his absence.
The Sabres return from the Christmas break at home against the Boston Bruins on Thursday. Coverage on MSG begins at 6:30 p.m., or you can listen to the game on WGR 550. Puck drop is scheduled for 7.