Buffalo, NY (WGR 550) – As I was watching the Buffalo Sabres play their worst game in weeks on Thursday, it really made me wonder why Don Granato changed things up on Wednesday and Thursday.
The Sabres interim head coach made practice and the morning skate optional, which totally goes away from what has made this team successful for the last little bit - longer practices and hard work. After I heard his explanation on the postgame show, I really liked the fact that he’s trying new things when it really doesn’t matter to see what works with these players and what will work in the future.
I asked him if he had it over again would he do it differently, and with no hesitation, Granato said yes.
"We didn’t play well enough from the start. We didn’t play well enough through the game and as a result of that, you look and think of what could you have done differently, and that was a big one.
“You’re gauging that rest and work ratio, and we didn’t respond the way we needed to with the rest clearly. It was easy to see that, and there’s no question on that.”
The Sabres made many mistakes that cost them dearly. They were very sloppy with the puck, and guys like Jacob Bryson, Rasmus Ristolainen, Brandon Montour, Colin Miller and Kyle Okposo had very tough nights.
Okposo was on the ice for the first five goals scored in this game, two-for and three-against. Overall, he was on the ice for two goals-for and four-against.
Ristolainen was on the ice for the first four goals in the game and five overall, one-for and four-against.
Bryson was on the ice for three goals-against, and pretty much handed the puck right to Jack Hughes, who set up Yegor Sharangovich for the game-clinching goal.
Jesper Boqvist wound up scoring the game-winning goal when Miller tried to pass behind the net to Montour, but didn’t put enough on it, allowing Michael McLeod to swoop in and steal the puck. Granato was upset because he said they had the puck on three different sticks before the goal and should’ve exited the zone.
The first two shifts of the game were dominated by the Sabres.
Casey Mittelstadt’s line got an immediate forecheck going off the opening faceoff and got a whistle. Next came the Sam Reinhart line, and 53 seconds into the game, Henri Jokiharju comes deep into the corner and put a very skilled pass right on Victor Olofsson’s stick, as he came open down the slot.
Remember this theme, good things happen when you go to the net.
That should’ve gotten the Sabres off and running, but just 37 seconds later, Cody Eakin took a holding penalty. 36 seconds after that, the third-worst power play in the league had a goal.
Buffalo wasn’t done shooting itself in the foot.
Just 57 seconds after the Devils' goal, Tage Thompson takes a dumb offensive zone holding penalty and 43 seconds after that, Pavel Zacha scores again from the top of the left circle. The third-worst power play in the NHL was 2-for-2 just 3:46 into the game.
Zacha made a nice shot, but let’s be honest, you need a save there from Linus Ullmark.
Hughes made it 3-1, and again, I didn’t think it would be unreasonable to expect a save there. It wouldn’t be easy, but you need a big save.
I thought then, and still think now, Granato made an error by not pulling Ullmark and letting Dustin Tokarski start the second period. Ullmark wasn’t awful, but he also wasn’t good. With back-to-back games, it would be a no-brainer to let Ullmark play Friday against the Washington Capitals. Now, it’s likely Tokarski’s start, but we’ll have to see.
Zacha and Jesper Bratt are good players, but they look like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl when they play the Sabres. With two goals, Zacha has 11 points in eight games against the Sabres, while Bratt had two assists and has nine points in eight games against Buffalo.
Aaron Dell is just another in a long list of goaltenders this year that got their first win of the season against Buffalo.
New Jersey led 3-1 midway through this game, and the Sabres finally started to play their game for about 10 minutes. That theme of going to the net helped them greatly.
On the power play, Montour ripped a shot from Jack Eichel’s normal circle that Dell stopped, but kicked out a juicy rebound. Thompson did a great job of setting up in the perfect place to pounce on a rebound and he did just that to make it 3-2.
Just 6:25 later, Jeff Skinner flew to the crease as Sam Reinhart’s shot was getting there. Dell left another huge rebound, and Skinner settled the puck down and backhanded the puck into the empty net.
You would think tying the game would’ve sparked the Sabres, but Skinner, who seemed like he was playing the whole game with only 11 forwards dressed, was not good at all until he scored that goal.
In the third, he played very well, but his teammates didn’t elevate with him. It seemed like Granato was going to play him to death to try to snap him out of it.
Skinner and Taylor Hall seem to be the only players that got worse under Granato. Maybe his good third period will get him going again. Skinner played 18:40, which was third on the team amongst the forwards. Only Reinhart at 21:19 and Olofsson at 19:17 played more.
Okposo did get an assist on Olofsson’s goal to give him points in eight-of-nine games. He has two goals and seven assists for nine points in that time. He said as a team, they were not good at any point.
“I just think they outworked us, and I think that first goal was a bit of a mirage and a false sense of security to start the game, because they were ready to work and we did not match their work ethic at any point in time,” the veteran forward said.
The Sabres finishes the season series 4-3-1 against the Devils.
***Photo: Micheline Michaelina (@MiMiV4682)