Maybe it was the fact that they were playing in front of their home crowd for the first time in two weeks, or maybe it was a carry-over effect from blowing a three-goal lead in the third period in Philadelphia on Tuesday. Whatever the reason, the Sabres were in agreement that they just didn't have it in the first period of a 4-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild at KeyBank Center on Thursday night.
The Sabres gave up the winning goal to rookie Joel Eriksson Ek just 4:51 into the contest. They trailed by two goals heading into the first intermission having taken only eight shots themselves.
"I didn't like the start to our game," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said afterward. "It felt like we were squeezing our sticks a little bit and, in old school terms, grinding the saw dust a little bit.
"…We weren't able to execute, we just got a little nervous with the puck. I don't know if that's from the Philly game, but that's what it felt like in the first, and then the first goal is a punch in the gut."
Eriksson Ek, a 19-year-old first-round draft pick for the Wild in 2015, skated down the ice with a defender in front of him and ripped a shot from the right circle that beat Nilsson to the far side. Then, with 4:47 remaining in the first period, Jason Zucker was able to skate behind the trio of Cody Franson, Matt Moulson and Jake McCabe as he entered the offensive zone. He caught a pass from Chris Stewart, raced alone into the slot and beat Nilsson with a backhand shot.
At times last season and again after their season-opening loss to Montreal two weeks ago, Sabres players have attributed their subpar record at home to trying to get too fancy with the puck rather than playing their typical forechecking style. Ryan O'Reilly described their slow start on Thursday in a similar vein.
"You could just tell I think we were trying to play a little too perfect," O'Reilly said. "We didn't want to be the guy to make a mistake. It's tough to play like that … They went out there and they played hockey, and they played it better than us at the start tonight.
"Once we finally took a breath and got back to just not worrying about as much Xs and Os but the little battles - competing, supporting each other, being there for each other - we started to generate."
That deep breath came during the first intermission, from which the Sabres came out firing on all cylinders. Buffalo held a 16-1 edge in shots (not a typo) by the time seven minutes had run off the clock. Part of that was a result of a strong effort on the power play during which their second unit generated multiple scoring chances, like this one from Tyler Ennis.
"We're stressing getting shots to the net, bodies to the net," Ennis said. "We had a lot of shots tonight but we've got to put them in, myself included."
The Sabres ended up totaling 31 shot attempts in the period to the Wild's 11, but were held off the board. For as good as their first power play attempt was, they struggled to enter the zone and sustain any pressure on another try late in the period.
"The first power play I thought we were very good," Bylsma said. "The second power play, I think it's a critical time in the game. We need to get a goal and we need to get it from our power play. We did not execute on the entry several times on that. They did a good job of stuffing us at the line and we didn't do a very good job of entering."
Ryan Suter scored with a far-side shot from the right circle just 2:58 into the third period, and Mikko Koivu added an empty-net goal to cap the scoring with 1:09 remaining. Sabres goalie Anders Nilsson allowed three goals on 21 shots.
Devan Dubnyk was a perfect 38-for-38 in net for Minnesota to earn his second-straight shutout. Dubnyk was also the winning goaltender in a 5-0 win for the Wild over the Bruins on Tuesday.
The Sabres fall to 1-3-2 with the loss and have dropped four-straight contests.
"It's tough," Sabres captain Brian Gionta said. "I think we're looking at our overall game and where we stand right now in the first six-plus games here. We need to find ways to get wins and obviously doing that, we need goals. I thought we made a great push [in the] second and third [periods], we've just got to stick with it. It's frustrating but we play again soon."
Hockey Fights Cancer
It was Hockey Fights Cancer Night at KeyBank Center, which began with the Sabres taking warmups in lavender sweaters (you can bid for those and other items now at auctions.nhl.com) followed by a ceremonial faceoff to honor Dan Zotara and Colleen Williams, two patients at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
You can watch the video and learn more about Zotara and Williams below.
Video: Jack Eichel's Shine Gold
Jack Eichel also spoke with Rob Ray between periods to discuss his "Shine Gold Collection," an apparel line from which all proceeds will benefit Carly's Club, a pediatric cancer therapy and research program at Roswell Park.
The Sabres are back at KeyBank Center on Saturday afternoon for a game against the Florida Panthers, which begins at 1 p.m. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550.