Sabers’ lopsided loss to Flames adds urgency to upcoming road trip, playoff push

BUFFALO, NY — The Buffalo Sabers are entering the season’s stretch run and have a chance to make the playoffs. That hasn’t been the case here for a long time, and the players, coaches, and management of the Sabers have all embraced the pressures that come with it. They went into their Saturday afternoon game against the Flames four points clear of a playoff spot and had games in hand with every team they pursue. But a stunning 7-2 loss to Calgary put even more emphasis on their upcoming three-game road trip in California.

“They came out and just punched us in the face,” Sabers captain Kyle Okposo said.

Early on, it looked like there was a chance it would be Buffalo’s day. The Sabers only had three shots on Jacob Markstrom in the first half, but they hit on two of them. Tage Thompson ripped the power play with a slap shot to make it 1-0 for the Sabers, and then Casey Mittelstadt scored the second goal with a wrist shot that hit Markstrom over his blocker. The Sabers went into the first break with a 2-0 lead, but Okposo admitted there may have been a false sense of security. He felt the team was rusty in the first period and it was untied from there.

The Flames had a four-goal attack in the second half that started when Jakob Pelletier scored a clean break and defeated Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen for his first NHL goal. Just two seconds later, Mikael Backlund ran off the boards through two Sabers and defeated Luukkonen with a low wrist shot from faceoff. A little over a minute later, Buffalo native Dennis Gilbert scored his first NHL goal with a one-timer off a drop pass from the blue line.

Luukkonen looked to have gotten back on track with a sensational glove save on a two-for-nothing scoring chance, but moments later Nazem Kadri smashed him through traffic with a shot from the blue line. Of the four goals in the second half, two were high danger chances, one medium danger chance, and one low danger chance, according to the Natural Stat trick. The Flames wanted to pepper Luukkonen in the second half. After ending the first third with an 11-3 shot lead, Calgary went into the second break with a 32-7 shot lead and a two-goal lead. The Flames had 85 percent of expected goals in five-a-side in two periods. Eventually, the Sabers were passed 31-4.

Tyler Toffoli and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. (Timothy T Ludwig / USA Today)

Granato attributed the skewedness of that loss to the fact that the Flames were playing their third game after the break while the Sabers had not played since a home loss to the Hurricanes on Feb. 1. All season long, when the Sabers haven’t been fresh, sharp, or both, they’ve struggled to consistently find a way to win by less than their best.

“You can say, that’s a problem, that’s a problem,” said Granato. “We played against a team that had a great jump in their third game and they had a jump on us. We only had nine days and it’s a challenge. This is a tough, tough thing and that’s what it looked like. You can be overly critical of this and that, but there was an imbalance and we couldn’t make up for that by doing the right thing.”

Things didn’t get much better in the third period. The Sabers had a little more energy early on, but Tyler Toffoli scored two goals and Dillon Dube had one to give the Flames seven unanswered goals. Luukkonen might have wanted a few goals back, but he never stood a chance considering the Sabers shot wide at 40-23.

After returning from the break, Granato and general manager Kevyn Adams both spoke about the Sabers not wanting to fear their game. They’ve earned their spot and should enjoy the pressure and high-stakes play that comes with it. This game wasn’t a reflection of a team not ready for a postseason push, but the loss creates a little more urgency now.

“You don’t want to overreact,” Okposo said. “It’s our first game in a while and obviously disappointing to come out like this, with all the talk, (that) was the last bit. Disappointing for sure, but let’s not hit the panic button now.”

The Sabers now have games against the Kings, Ducks and Sharks on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday of next week. The Kings are currently in a wildcard position, but the Ducks and Sharks are two of the worst teams in the west this season. The Sabers are currently going 10-1-2 against the Western Conference this season. They need to solve the home funk they’re stuck in, but the Sabers get a timely road trip.

“It’s just a good time to forget this and move on,” Thompson said. “There’s a lot of hockey coming up and this road trip is a big deal for us. No time to linger, we just keep going. These are pretty big games here.”

If the Sabers can return home with multiple wins on this journey, they will continue to hang around in the playoff race. But it’s a crowded race. The Penguins and Capitals, two playoff-proven teams, currently occupy the two wild cards. The Panthers, who won the Presidents’ Trophy a year ago, are ahead of the Sabers. So are the islanders who just added Bo Horvat to improve their score.

Adams has maintained his faith in the players on the roster, so there might not be a big deadline splash coming.

After signing his extension this week, Dylan Cozens spoke about how the players in the room have had playoff ambitions since the summer and want to earn the league’s respect. The longer they hang around in this race, the harder they push, the more likely that is to happen. It starts on Monday evening against the Kings in Los Angeles.

“We’ll see what we’re made of,” Okposo said.

(Photo above: Timothy T. Ludwig / USA Today) Sabers’ lopsided loss to Flames adds urgency to upcoming road trip, playoff push

Russell Falcon

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