It wasn’t the result or the start they had hoped for, but the Sabres certainly ended their preseason with an exclamation point.
After entering the third period down 5-0, Buffalo turned their game around dramatically with four goals in less than nine minutes but ultimately fell short of a comeback in a 6-4 preseason loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at First Niagara Center on Friday.
Jamie McGinn led the charge for Buffalo with two tip-in goals, including the power-play score that got them on the board 4:14 into the third period.
“I think we played together,” McGinn said of the Sabres’ late comeback attempt. “We put pucks in the right area and we moved our feet. We won the battles; we were first to pucks so I think that’s the biggest thing.”
“Look at the shots as well,” he continued. “We didn’t put pucks to the paint in the first two periods and the third period we did and we got results.”
Columbus outshot Buffalo 21-10 through the first two periods. Defensive lapses resulted in early goals for Lukas Sedlak and Dean Kukan and a neutral-zone turnover paved the way for Markus Hannikainen to give the Blue Jackets a 3-0 lead to end the first period.
Little changed at the outset of the second, as William Karlsson and Oliver Bjorkstand each scored in the first-half of the period to give Columbus what looked like an insurmountable five-goal lead.
“We were sitting back, we were second to pucks in the first 40 [minutes]. We just couldn’t get our feet moving, couldn’t get in rhythm,” Sabres captain Brian Gionta said. “Too many turnovers, not enough support, things like that and they lead to goals.”
“I think probably the last six minutes of the second and the last 20 is how we need to play, where our execution needs to be at, where our management of the puck needs to be at and where we need to play,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “We didn’t have it at all in the first 30 minutes or so, first 35 minutes or so.”
After beginning to beginning to turn their play around late in the second, the Sabres finally scored when McGinn tipped in a shot from Matt Moulson to cut the deficit to four. Forty-six seconds later, Zemgus Girgensons drove home a shot for the team’s second goal.
Finally, Bylsma was seeing his team play up to their capabilities.
“The best picture I had in my mind is after the second goal. We won a draw, it was quick-up, it was tipped into the offensive zone, we’re right on a forecheck and now we’re hunting in the offensive zone,” he said. “We’re there quick, we’re there physically and we’re competing there and that was the snapshot I had in my head; that’s how we need to play.”
Buffalo’s final two goals came just over a minute apart as well. McGinn got a stick on a shot from defenseman Mark Pysyk and then Evander Kane scored his fourth goal of the preseason to make it a one-goal game in front of a roaring Buffalo crowd.
The Sabres comeback attempt was cut short when Bjorkstrand scored an empty-netter with 1:19 to play in the third. All in all, Buffalo outshot Columbus 18-5 in the final period.
McGinn said afterward that the team didn’t need any motivation to turn their play around at intermission.
“I don’t think much had to be said. That was not the way we wanted to start things, we knew we were a lot better than that so we’ll take the positives in the third period, that’s the way we supposed to play and we proved that we can,” he said.
Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner struggled for much of his final preseason start, allowing five goals on 25 shot attempts. Afterward, he talked about putting the game behind him and continuing to develop as a team as the regular season approaches.
“We’ve seen how we can play and now we’ve just got to, the last six days here we’ve just got to tighten it up a little bit and work on our details. I’ve got to still work on some of my details and just keep practicing. Keep practicing, staying positive, you don’t want to let in five goals but it’s still preseason,” he said.
The Sabres will have Saturday off before returning to practice on Sunday. Then they will have three more days before they open the regular season. Gionta said that a focus of the team during that time will be figuring out how to prevent deficits like the one on Friday from happening.
“I think we’ll touch on systems the rest of the week but one of the biggest things we’ve got to try and figure out is our starts,” he said. “We’ve been fairly slow on our starts in some of these games and we’ve got to find ways to come out and get on top of teams.”
The Sabres open the regular season against the Ottawa Senators at First Niagara Center on Oct. 8.