Sabres' playoff drought officially reaches 13 years with loss in Dallas


Staff member

As the puck fluttered toward center ice, Rasmus Dahlin turned slightly to his right and whacked it out of midair to give the Buffalo Sabres another chance in the offensive zone.

Jeff Skinner eluded Dallas Stars winger Jamie Benn to gain possession in the slot. And though Skinner eventually lost control, Jack Quinn was in position to snap a shot past goalie Jake Oettinger for what could have been the tying goal in the second period.

The Stars began to complain to officials as the Sabres celebrated. The elation didn’t last long for the visitors in American Airlines Center, though. Through a coach’s challenge, officials overturned Quinn’s goal because Dahlin played the puck with a high stick.

With 23 minutes remaining in regulation, Dahlin would not allow the Sabres to relent. He’s shown since opening night in October that he’ll do whatever it takes to try to will them to victory. Their season on the brink in Game 79 on Tuesday night, he kept pushing to try to help them tie the score until their fate was sealed.

The Sabres’ 3-2 loss to the Dallas Stars, coupled with the New York Islanders’ victory over the Rangers, officially eliminated Buffalo from the Stanley Cup Playoffs and extended the franchise’s postseason drought to 13 years.

“We’re a young team and that shouldn’t be an excuse anymore,” said Dahlin, an alternate captain. “We are looking ourselves in the mirror and we have to be better, so this is something we have to learn from this season and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“We want to do something special in Buffalo and everyone is on the train. This summer is going to be very, very important for us.”

A season that began with high expectations will end Monday night with the finale in Tampa Bay. At best, the Sabres can finish with 85 points, six fewer than they earned last season. Their playoff drought is an NHL record and tied with the New York Jets for the longest active streak in North American professional sports.

There are questions surrounding the future of the Sabres’ head coach, Don Granato, and the youngest roster in the NHL that did not win more than three games in a row. They’ll carry a 37-37-5 record into their final home game of the season Thursday night against the Washington Capitals.

The what-ifs stung as the Sabres processed the harsh reality. What if their power play didn’t sink to 29th in the NHL? What if they had gotten to overtime more often? What if their penalty kill was more inconsistent? What if their top players hadn’t taken so long to get on a roll? What if they hadn’t allowed two or more goals in the first period 28 times? What if they hadn’t played at a 73-point pace before Jan. 1?

Those questions, and several others, were relevant during and after the game that ended their push for a playoff spot. The Sabres’ power play had only two shots on goal in six minutes while going 0-for-3 against the Stars.

“Every point matters, obviously, and if you wait until too late in the season to make your push it’s going to catch up with you in the end and it did this year,” said Alex Tuch, who scored the game’s first goal. “It (stinks).”

The Sabres finished with only 21 shots on goal and, according to Natural Stat Trick, generated only two high-danger chances at 5-on-5 over the final 40 minutes of regulation. Once again, they struggled to create offensively against an experienced, physical team that takes away the middle of the ice. Their do-it-all defenseman gave them a chance, though.

Tuch gave the Sabres a 1-0 lead only 4:09 into the game when Henri Jokiharju’s shot from the point went off the winger and past Oettinger. The Stars quickly rallied to tie the score, as Jason Robertson skated to the net and tipped the puck past Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen as it reached the crease.

Dahlin didn’t allow the mistake to snowball. He collected a pass in the neutral zone, carried the puck over the blue line and snapped a shot from the right circle that leaked through Oettinger to give the Sabres a 2-1 lead with 10:22 left in the first period.

At 23 years old, Dahlin became the first Sabres defenseman with at least 20 goals in a season since Phil Housley last accomplished the feat in 1989-90. Dahlin also ranks second among all NHL defensemen, only one behind Nashville’s Roman Josi (21), and only five 23 or younger have scored more in a season since 1993-94 than Dahlin: Mike Green, Cale Makar, Sandish Ozolinsh, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Shea Weber.

“He’s a leader,” Granato said of Dahlin. “That guy brings it every night and it continually infects the rest of the team more and more every day. If you’re ever in doubt of how you need to work, just look at that guy. He is an example, a walking, living example, every day of how hard you need to play.”

Dahlin is tied with Tuch for the team lead in points (58), and his 26:24 ice time per game since the All-Star break is the highest mark in the league. It’s conceivable that Dahlin would be a candidate for the Norris Trophy if he piled up points on the power play and Buffalo met or exceeded the expectations created by their 91-point finish last season.

Another issue, though, is that the Sabres’ leading point-getters through 79 games only had 58. Five of their players eclipsed the 60-point mark last season and five produced at least 28 goals. No one has surpassed 30 this season – Tage Thompson leads the team with 29 – and only five have scored at least 20.

No one could break through after Wyatt Johnston and Joe Pavelski scored 3:30 apart to give Dallas a 3-2 lead in the second period. Johnston capitalized on a backhand shot from the slot, and Pavelski tipped the puck past Luukkonen.

“Obviously not the way we wanted the season to go,” said Thompson. “I think we kind of dug ourselves into a hole early in the season and tried to climb our way out of it. In the second half of the season, we kind of found our game. I don’t want to say it’s too late at that point, but it definitely made it more challenging on ourselves.”

The consistency was never there, though. The Sabres didn’t get to the front of the net often enough to score the type of goals needed late in the season. They weren’t creating off the rush like they did a year ago, either. And, while the team defense was vastly improved for a stretch during the second half, it still wavered too often. Pressure was also difficult for this team to handle at times. Buffalo went 0-6 when it was within four points of a playoff spot after Nov. 30.

The Sabres were still in the hunt for a playoff spot in April, an accomplishment Jack Eichel never achieved during his time in Buffalo, and they went 10 seasons without eclipsing 85 points. Another spring without playoff hockey at KeyBank Center is difficult for any of their fans to stomach, though.

“We’re right there,” said Thompson. “We’re right on the cusp. It sucks we keep saying it, but it’s the truth. I think the guys in the room know that and there is belief.”

Here are other observations from the game:

1. Finding a way

Why don’t we see the Sabres tipping shots past goalies the way the Stars did throughout the game Tuesday night?

Dallas scored twice in the first period by deflecting the puck past Luukkonen, though the second was overturned because Mason Marchment’s stick was above the crossbar. The Stars are a deep, experienced team that’s contending for the Presidents Trophy and a popular pick to win the Stanley Cup. Their lineup is dotted with skill, led by Robertson, but their simple approach to creating offense is effective at this time of the season.

“They know how to battle around the net,” said Granato. “That’s absolutely something we will need to improve on is getting more sticks on pucks. I think we’re starting to improve on guys getting to the net and getting pucks toward the net, but we missed too many tonight where there could have been tips or redirects. That’s the next area that we need to progress in.”

2. Career year

The Sabres may have trouble keeping Jokiharju this summer.

According to Granato, who has coached the right-shot defenseman since 2018, Jokiharju is having the best season of his NHL career. Jokiharju’s average ice time per game has dropped more than two minutes from last season, but he has 17 points with a plus-11 rating through 71 games. Only two Sabres have been on the ice for more 5-on-5 goals scored since Jan. 1: Dahlin and Owen Power.

Jokiharju is going to receive a raise as a restricted free agent this summer, one of several decisions facing General Manager Kevyn Adams.

3. Key cog

Imagine if the Sabres had Quinn healthy for the entire season?

It’s not unreasonable to think that Quinn would have scored at least 20 goals given the ice time and opportunity that he was going to receive. Not many goalies in the NHL can stop Quinn’s shot when he’s given the time and space that he had on the goal that was overturned.

The Sabres need Quinn to have a healthy, productive offseason so he’s strong in the fall and ready to skate on the first or second line.

4. Regrets

Tuch recited the what-ifs during his postgame chat with reporters.

He mentioned their struggling power play, inconsistent penalty kill, inability to build a long win streak like those that have made the Stars (50-20-9) the best team in the Western Conference and the inconsistent from shift to shift.

Tuch mentioned that the season ending on a sour note was on the players and no one else. Then, he paused and began to describe how he regretted his own performance this season.

“I have to be better going forward,” said Tuch. “I can’t start off the season like I did this year. Can’t wait 10, 15 games to get into it and then start playing the way I should and the way I know how to play. So, I’m going to take it really personal. I play a lot of minutes on this team. I’ve got a lot of opportunity on this team. Wasn’t good enough this year.”

Tuch has 18 points over his last 14 games, and he’s up to 21 goals with 58 points this season.

5. Next

The Sabres’ home finale is Thursday night in KeyBank Center with a matchup against the Washington Capitals at 7 p.m.