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NHL

Give The Sabres The Stanley Cup Of Finding A Way To Lose

BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 18: Buffalo Sabres interim head coach Don Granato (left) and assistant coach Matt Ellis behind the bench during the game against the Boston Bruins at KeyBank Center on March 18, 2021 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)
This photo's from last week, but I assume that of everyone pictured only Eric Staal looked any happier yesterday.
Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images

The editors of Defector would like to issue a correction. A March 16 blog about the Buffalo Sabres, written after their losing streak hit 11, was headlined, “This Is Rock Bottom,” and in our defense, it sure felt like it. But it was not bottom. The Sabres have since proven that they could go lower; indeed, that there may be no bottom. The editors would like to apologize for this overestimation of the Sabres’ prospects and abilities.

Your chastened editor would also like to apologize for his privately held belief Monday night after two periods against the Flyers, when the Sabres possessed a 3-0 lead, that this was finally going to be the night they broke through and won a damn hockey game. This was, after all, the same Philadelphia team that had lost five of seven, including losses of 9-0, 6-1, and 8-3, and at times seemed to be doing it on purpose to get Alain Vigneault fired. For two periods in Buffalo, the Bad Flyers showed up, and the Bad Flyers were evidently worse than the Regular Sabres. Not even Buffalo could fail to take a game off a team with this innovative defensive positioning, right? … Right?

And so the Sabres headed to their dressing room up 3-0, 20 minutes from absolution, all the math and momentum on their side. Rasmus Dahlin, what happened then?

“Panic attack. We haven’t been in this situation. We got panicked.”

Oh. Oh no.

I am choosing not to take Dahlin’s words literally; I am not imagining, say, Casey Mittelstadt breathing into a brown paper bag to keep himself from hyperventilating over the concept of holding a lead. But I am not discounting Dahlin’s words either. Vibes are very, very real, and it is fully probable that the pressure and unfamiliarity of winning a hockey game was enough to unnerve them, and make them play tight. It is downright heartbreaking to realize that it has been so long since the Sabres have won a game, and that they have lost games in so many ways, that they no longer expect to protect a lead, or even remember how.

You could fill in the rest of the script yourself. Kevin Hayes scored 1:50 into the third to make it a two-goal game which somehow felt like it was tied. Claude Giroux scored at 10:51, which made the outcome feel inevitable. But there was still pain left to be felt. With 1:50 remaining in the game and the Flyers having pulled their goalie, a sprawling Tage Thompson shoved the puck toward the empty net. Yes, Buffalo was this close to sealing a win:

He missed, of course, and, also of course, 20 seconds later Sean Couturier deflected a puck past Linus Ullmark to knot things up. And—of course—Philly skated away with the win when Ivan Provorov finished a 2-on-1 42 seconds into overtime.

“You go up 3-0 like that, especially as desperate as we are to just get two points, it’s embarrassing,” Brandon Montour said. “I know this whole stretch is embarrassing, but especially tonight. Any team in the NHL, I don’t care who you are, that’s a win.”

“Any team in the NHL,” perhaps, but these are the 2021 Buffalo Sabres, and that’s now 18 games without a win, the longest such streak in the NHL since the ’03–’04 Penguins. (I know there’s some debate between the technical and the colloquial over what differentiates a “losing” streak from a “winless” streak, with the letter of the law claiming that because the Sabres earned an overtime point, this doesn’t count toward the former. But let’s be real. In no sane universe is losing this game, like that, anything resembling a moral victory. They may not be the worst team in league history, but they’re bad and cursed, and that’s a potent combination.)

The quest for 19 straight will be a rematch on Wednesday night, with Buffalo again hosting the Flyers, and the Sabres are eager for it. “We owned them the first two periods, why can’t we finish them?” Montour wondered. All common sense says this will be as winnable a game as exists for these Sabres. And your editors apologize in advance for suggesting even the vaguest tinge of optimism.