PITTSBURGH — These aren’t the Buffalo Sabres you have come to know over the past seven years.
These also are not the Pittsburgh Penguins you have come to know, either.
The two teams continued on their early season paths — which are going in completely opposite directions — on Monday night as the Sabres stormed back and erased a three-goal second period deficit to pick up a 5-4 overtime win on a Jack Eichel goal, leaving the Penguins stunned and still searching for answers.
For the Sabres, it continues what has been the team’s best start in close to a decade, extending their current winning streak to six games and giving them a 10-2-2 record in their past 14 games. Everything is clicking for them right now, from new acquisitions like Jeff Skinner stepping in and making a massive impact on the top line, to new starting goalie Carter Hutton giving the team capable goaltending every night.
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Hutton did not have a spectacular game on Monday overall, but he still made some huge saves early in the game to keep his team in it. He also played a huge factor on the penalty kill to help kill off a two-man advantage in the second period when the team was already trailing by three goals.
Once they killed off that penalty, Zach Bogosian scored to cut the deficit in half.
From that point on the Sabres completely took over the game and absolutely manhandled the Penguins in their own zone for the final 25 minutes.
“I think obviously there is that desperation in our game there in the third,” said Eichel. “We’ve been in that spot before. We’ve been a resilient bunch. There is that belief in the room every time we go out there we can make a push and find a way to get a point or two. We definitely want to work on our starts, but it’s great to see the way the team sticks together. It’s a credit to all the guys in the room to stick with it even when things don’t go our way.”
“There is a bit of confidence now because we’ve done it a few times,” Eichel continued. “I think it’s a trust and a belief in each other that the next guy is going to get the job done and set you up for your next shift. We’re a pretty tight bunch for how many new guys have come into this team and we’re doing it for each other. Everyone goes out there and doesn’t want to let the guy next to you down.”
While things are going wonderfully for the Sabres right now things for the Penguins are … well … bad.
How bad? Look at it this way: They are left trying to find silver linings after their past two games. Those games — a 6-4 loss in Ottawa where they mounted a late — and ultimately futile — third period rally, and an overtime loss to Buffalo on home ice in which they had a 4-1 lead (while getting a 29-second two-man advantage) with 15 minutes to play in the second period.
For a team that was winning Stanley Cups just a couple of years ago and entered the season with a roster it thought was capable of winning another one, that is an astonishing and sudden slide.
Coach Mike Sullivan is trying to remain positive.
“On a couple of the goals they score, we make a couple of mistakes and they end up in the back of our net,” said Sullivan. “Just seems like the way it is going right now. There was a lot to like about our game and our effort. We certainly have to clean up some areas defensively but there was certainly a lot to like in this game as well.
There definitely was a lot to like about the first 25 minutes, especially when it came to the team finding some even-strength scoring from players they need to get it from.
Derick Brassard, who has battled injuries and inconsistent play since arriving before last season’s trade deadline, opened the scoring with a much-needed goal, while recent acquisition Tanner Pearson scored a goal and recorded an assist. Those two points exceeded his total for the season between the Kings and Penguins entering the game.
From there, everything went south.
Defensive breakdowns, an inability to smoothly and efficiently exit the zone, no sustained offensive zone pressure, and more sub-par goaltending (this time from Casey DeSmith) turned what looked to be a much-needed win into yet another loss.
That is now nine losses in their past 10 games as the Penguins are tied with the New Jersey Devils for the lowest point total in the Eastern Conference.
Sullivan was asked if it is too early for things to be getting “desperate.”
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“I don’t think it’s ever too early,”said Sullivan. “Every game is important, every point is important, and we’re scratching and clawing through it anyway we can. We are well aware of the position we are in. None of us are happy about it. We have a proud group. I do think we are getting better in a lot of areas. We’re not getting the results. We very well could have in a number of games, tonight being one of them. We have to clean up some areas I know we are capable of being better, we have to make sure we do not get down ourselves, and we keep the right attitude and the right energy around the rink so we can pull together.”
How they are able to start getting the results and how they can pull it together still seems like a mystery, but they better start figuring it out.
Captain Sidney Crosby is getting closer to a return, but there is only so much he can do. He also does not fix the issues on the blue line, in the goal crease, or in the bottom-six (though his return does push Brassard back down to the third-line role he was acquired to play in).
With Monday’s loss they now find themselves five points behind the Washington Capitals for the third playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division and seven points behind the second wild card team in the Eastern Conference. That is not an insignificant gap, even if it is still November. No team five or more points out of a playoff spot in 2017-18 on Nov. 20 (which is where the Penguins will sit on Tuesday) managed to make the playoffs.