BUFFALO — The stone-cold Sabres, on the fast track to another dead end of a season, steered ever closer to another postseason DNQ Wednesday night with a 5-1 loss to the Bruins in which they were torched for four goals in the first period.
The Bruins, 10-6-0 (.625) at the Thanksgiving break, put it away with strikes by Patrice Bergeron, Charlie Coyle, David Pastrnak, and Mike Reilly. Bergeron, Coyle, and Pastrnak each finished with a goal and an assist, and Nick Foligno chipped in with a pair of helpers.
Jeremy Swayman, after falling behind, 1-0, midway through the first period, improved to 6-3-0. He stopped 24 shots, including all 17 after yielding the game-opening goal by Kyle Okposo.
“Obviously, I want that one back,” said Swayman, who saw Okposo’s shot whistle through Bergeron’s legs and beat him on the short side. “But I thought our [four-goal] response was great. I had the best seat in the house — it was fun to watch.”
The Bruins lost the services of standout defenseman Charlie McAvoy with 6:14 remaining in the third, his head knocking hard against the top of the boards when drilled by Zemgus Girgensons. He suffered a gash to his forehead, but the injury should not force him to miss any more action.
Taylor Hall, working with open space on the power play with Girgensons tossed out of the game, fired home the closer at 15:26.
“We really pushed through after [Okposo’s goal],” said coach Bruce Cassidy. “We were trying to play the right way — get up the ice in a hurry, in and out of our end, support the puck, play off the shot. We really kind of controlled the play and got some breaks in front of the net — but you earn your breaks, too, by putting the puck to the net and outworking people.”
Swayman, the Bruins rookie goalie who turned 23 on Wednesday, was not expected to start, but was pointed to the net when ex-Sabres tender Linus Ullmark suffered a minor injury in the traditional day-of-game skate late in the morning.
Post game, Cassidy said Swayman will start again Friday at home against the Rangers (1 p.m. matinee), and the plan is for Ullmark to start Sunday night with the sad sack Canucks in town. The strategy could change if Ullmark needs more time to recover.
“I hope not, it didn’t seem like a big thing, he was able to back up [here],”said Cassidy, asked if it might be necessary to call up a goalie from the WannaBs. “I don’t think it’s anything major.”
The attendance at KeyBank Center was a season-high 9,416, lifting the average to 8,047 through 11 home games. Mercy.
After falling behind on Okposo’s game-opening goal at 10:56 — 10 seconds after a sharp save by Aaron Dell at the other end — the Bruins put it away with four quick pops in a span of five minutes, 31 seconds.
Bergeron, without a point in the previous three games, netted the equalizer at 13:29, firing in a short backhander from the left side with Dell prostrate in the crease. Coyle was next, only 51 seconds later, connecting for the game-winner with a laser snipe from the right side for his sixth of the season.
Foligno opened up some space on the right wing for Coyle to walk in and send his sizzling shot under the crossbar, short-side on Dell. The goal gave Coyle six for the season, equaling his total output of last season, during which he played injured and required off-season knee surgery.
“I think Charlie’s played pretty well, to be honest with you. A little bit under the radar,” said Cassidy. “His numbers are good. He’s shooting the puck.”
The hits kept on coming at 16:59 when Pastrnak cashed in a power-play strike, a classic “Pasta” one-timer from just above the dot in the left wing circle. McAvoy slid over a slow relay and the Czech winger put the hammer down, with Dell again burned on the short side. (Noticing a pattern?)
The knockout punch came with 60 seconds to go to the break. The ever-more-confident Jakub Zboril unloaded the initial shot from the slot, the puck kicked to the circle, and a charging Reilly rushed in for a forehander to the wide open short side.
The Bruins did their damage with 22 shots across the period, outshooting Buffalo, 13-0, after Okposo opened the night’s scoring.
Sabres coach Don Granato, all his lifeboats gone, swapped out Dell for Dustin Tokarski to start the second period. Tokarski did a much better job, albeit in fruitless circumstances.
Tough times for the lowly Sabres in what was once a hotbed hockey town. Ninety minutes prior to puck drop, only a smattering of fans could be found outside the arena. A half-hour later, with opening faceoff less than an hour way, only some 200 were in the stands. It was enough to make the ghost of the old Aud weep.
Maybe GM Kevyn Adams, the former Bruins draft pick, will prove the transformative agent here, but the turnaround does not appear to on the horizon.