NEWARK, NJ — You could hear a pin drop in the locker room.
The Buffalo Sabres, six points back of the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with 15 games remaining, entered Sunday night’s tilt against the Devils in New Jersey badly in need of two points. Instead, the Sabres came away with nothing. Their 10-game winning streak in November? A distant memory. The void in the locker room? Palpable. You could cut the tension in the air with a knife.
Kyle Palmieri set up Miles Wood and Jesper Bratt before delivering the death blow with 5:51 remaining in regulation — a pin-point shot top-shelf where momma hides the cookies — as the Devils dealt the Sabres a crushing defeat with a 4-1 win at Prudential Center in Newark.
Blessed with a power play down two in the late stages, Buffalo coach Phil Housley pulled goalie Carter Hutton in a desperate attempt to climb back into it, but Joey Anderson’s 150-foot shot from his own blue line was the final nail in the coffin for the Sabres.
Despite outshooting the 8th-place Devils, 35-24, reporters walked on egg shells in the Sabres locker room. Hard-hitting questions were asked and frustrations boiled over as media and players went tête-à-tête looking for answers.
“You’re last in the East for a month-and-a-half stretch. Do you guys even feel you are even in a playoff race at this point?” The Buffalo News‘ Mike Harrington asked Sabres’ defenseman Zach Bogosian. “Do you feel there are any signs to show you can be competitive? You haven’t won two in a row in two months.”
“We’re confident in each other, are you?” Bogosian responded with a dead-set look in his eye. “The guys we have in our room. I know the character we have in this room — that’s what I believe in. I believe in every single guy in here.”
“Are you guys just about toast here? Effort-wise you say it’s there but you’re six points out and you’ve showed no signs of putting together a winning streak.” WGR 550’s Paul Hamilton posed Sabres’ forward Sam Reinhart.
“Are we toast? Reinhart fired back in frustration. “Ha — that’s one way to look at it but we certainly feel very in the mix. We have another opportunity in a couple days. It doesn’t make it easier with other teams winning, but no, we don’t feel we’re toast at all. It doesn’t take much to turn it around. We’ve got to bear down and start putting up more points, but right now it’s tough to swallow.”
It seemed only fitting, Buffalo-born Miles Wood, the son of long-time Sabres and Islanders’ forward Randy Wood, would strike the first blow for the New Jersey Devils when the feisty forward crashed the net and put the puck in the net off a fortuitous bounce off his skate for a 1-0 lead 7:25 into the game.
The Devils made it 2-0 13:38 into the second period when Jesper Bratt one-timed Palmieri’s cross-ice pass past Hutton on the power play, but Buffalo battled right back 5:26 later and made it 2-1 when Reinhart cashed in off a nice feed from Bogosian just 56 seconds before the end of the second frame.
It would be the last time the Sabres would solve Devils’ goalie Cory Schneider, who, despite going 13 months in between wins following off-season hip surgery, has won each of his last two starts.
“I strive to be consistent and obviously you know the past year hasn’t really been that at all,” said Schneider, who stood tall with 34 saves after defeating the Minnesota Wild on Friday night. “But to get back to that and the guys know what they’re going to get every single night — that I’m going to give them a chance to win is really important to me and I think to the team.”
“Hopefully this is the start of Cory Schneider of old and he can keep growing that confidence and keep playing well,” Palmieri said. “When he plays like he did the other night and tonight he’ll give us great chances to win.”
With the victory, the New Jersey Devils, who have won three of their last five, improve to 23-28-8 (54 points).
It was a tough pill to swallow for the Buffalo Sabres (28-23-7) who are just 2-6 in their last eight games. With 63 points, Buffalo is now six points back of the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“I thought we played hard. It was a pretty back-and-forth game. We had our chances,” Bogosian said. “We were right there late in the game but Palmieri scores that goal it’s a nail in the coffin. But I thought we were in it. Breakdowns are going to happen. We have to be there for each other.”
“We need to get more bodies in the dirty areas,” Sabres’ Zemgus Girgensons said. “The effort was there. I think we can be more aggressive in our D-zone and close on guys quicker, but at the end of the day it was just a couple of mistakes that cost us.”
The Sabres haven’t won back-to-back games since Dec. 11-13 against the Los Angeles Kings and Arizona Coyotes. Buffalo has not qualified for the post-season since 2010-11 and clearly frustrations are boiling over.
“I looked up in the third and we did have quite a few shots,”Reinhart said. “But from what I gather, there weren’t too many second or third opportunities around (Schneider). I think we got to focus more on keeping it a little more simple and get more bodies to the net.”
New Jersey will look to make it three in a row at home against Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
“It was hard for us, for those on the trip we didn’t get back about 430-5 in the morning from Minnesota — sometimes that can carry over,” Schneider said. “I thought we did a good job shaking that rust off early in the first and we got better as a team as the game went on — especially in the third, I thought we managed the lead well. For me, it was just about keeping us in it, giving us a chance to get our legs going. My objective is just to be ready to go.”
Buffalo will get back on track against the Panthers in Florida on Tuesday.
“It’s another opportunity for us to put up points,” Reinhart said. “We’ve got to bear down.”
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
Special to HockeyClan
Main Image: Jason Pominville #29 of the Buffalo Sabres misses a first period opportunity against Cory Schneider #35 of the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on February 17, 2019 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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