By Bill Hoppe
Again? Another wretched home start from the Sabres, their third this month? Yup, this time they fell behind 2-0 behind to the New Jersey Devils by the 5:21 mark Wednesday.
The Sabres even seized the momentum early inside the First Niagara Center, as Thomas Vanek drew an interference penalty. But instead of capitalizing, they left Zach Parise wide open in front, and the slick American scored short-handed in the slot at 2:06.
Sniper Ilya Kovalchuk then tallied on the power play, blowing by Derek Roy in the left circle and putting the Devils’ third shot by goalie Jhonas Enroth.
“It’s kind of been an Achilles’ heel in this building,” defenseman Jordan Leopold said about the slow starts following the Sabres’ 5-3 loss. “We can’t get off to a start like that.”
But just like their other early meltdowns – a 3-2 loss to Philadelphia and a 6-5 win over Winnipeg, games in which they allowed three goals in the opening minutes– the Sabres came back, settled down a bit and made the contest interesting.
It wasn’t enough, though, especially against the trapping Devils and netminder Martin Brodeur, one of the all-time greats. The Sabres suffered just their second loss in seven games.
“When you get down goals like that, it’s always going to be a huge battle to come back, get back in the game and win a game like that,” said Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers, who scored twice. “We really got to adjust out starts.”
Why does it keep happening?
“I think it’s just mental,” Myers said. “We all know what we have to do here in the room. We all know our systems, so it’s just a matter of work ethic every shift … and battling for those first 10 minutes.”
The Sabres hardly locked down later, however. They hung Enroth, who lost in regulation for the first time since Nov. 24, out twice for third-period goals. Patrick Elias one-timed a shot in the right circle after Mike Weber coughed up the puck, and then David Clarkson scored on a breakaway, ending the rookie’s night at 8:23.
Goalie Drew MacIntyre, an AHL veteran recalled after Ryan Miller suffered a concussion Saturday, saw his first NHL action since Jan. 29, 2008.
Enroth had been scorching, arguably the league’s best goalie. With Miller out indefinitely and the No. 1 job his temporarily, the Swede began the night 6-0 with a sparkling 1.76 goals-against average and .942 save percentage. He was 13-0-1 dating back to last season.
But he made only 14 saves before the capacity crowd of 18,690 fans.
“It was OK. He had a tough one,” Ruff said about Enroth. “A couple of them were screens. The Kovalchuk shot, I don’t know if he could have it any better in the top corner. We needed a big save maybe on the breakaway. Even on the first one maybe. It went through his legs. But he’s given us a lot of great hockey. And we got back-to-back games (this weekend), and I just felt late we’d get him out and let him rest up.”
Enroth said he played “a real bad game” and allowed “a couple of bad goals.”
“I got to find a way to make a couple of saves,” Enroth said. “I gave up five goals tonight. It’s not good enough.”
Neither is the Sabres’ cohesiveness 18 games into the season. Yes, they’re 11-7. But they’re clearly not firing on all cylinders.
Most of the scoring has come from Vanek, Roy and Jason Pominville, who now comprise the top line. The defensemen, meanwhile, haven’t been very good overall.
“We’ve got some defensemen that have played loose and inconsistent,” Ruff said. “We’ve got some lines that haven’t quite fit together. We’re close some nights. The odd night we’re really good. But we really haven’t come together that tight. I thought we worked hard tonight. We just made some … really bad decisions at times.”
Ruff tried to mix things up during Wednesday’s game, flipping Brad Boyes from the fourth line’s left wing to the No. 2 center between Ville Leino and Drew Stafford, a move the coach liked. Rookie Luke Adam took Boyes’ spot with Matt Ellis and Corey Tropp.
“You can put whatever lines you want,” Ruff said. “If you’re going to toss the puck away or get sloppy the first five minutes, you’re going to lose games.”
Leopold tallied late to make it 5-3. Mark Fayne had the Devils’ other score.