When the season ends on April 11, it is entirely possible that the Bruins will find themselves one point short of a playoff spot, of the first wild card, of where they want to be. If that’s the case, then Tuesday night was the culprit, a gimme game in which the Bruins should have found two points.
Instead, they found only one.
The outcome, in the end, was probably exactly wrong for both sides. The Sabres got two points further from the Connor McDavid sweepstakes with their 2-1 shootout win, on a goal by Tyler Ennis that just caught the inside of the crossbar, and the Bruins got just one point as they try to solidify a playoff spot with a few weeks to play in the season.
“Every point is important right now, and of course it’s a tough one to lose, especially when Ottawa won today and the teams behind us are chasing us,” Loui Eriksson said, of the Senators, who closed to four points back with a game in hand on Tuesday. “Every point is huge, and that’s a tough one to lose.”
It was not as if the Bruins didn’t have chances against a team playing in the second half of a back-to-back. They had plenty of them. Through the three periods and overtime, the Bruins made 95 attempts on Anders Lindback and the Buffalo net. Forty-five of those landed on Lindback, who made 44 saves. Twenty-eight of them were blocked by the Sabres.
Just one got through.
And that, much like the Buffalo goal in the third, came only on a fortuitous bounce. Carl Soderberg won an offensive zone faceoff, with Adam McQuaid getting the puck. The defenseman’s shot bounced off the end boards and back toward the right side of the crease, where Loui Eriksson stuck it between the skate of a slow-to-react Lindback and the post at 9:55 of the first.
Through the rest of that period, and through the second, there were opportunities after opportunities, with 26 shots on goal and 58 attempts on net. They just weren’t successful.
“We had chances, we had shots, and if we’re not going to find ways to bury goals then you’ve got to look at yourselves in those kinds of situations,” coach Claude Julien said.
That was especially notable in a sequence halfway through the second period when Soderberg had two misses, one shot blocked, and one shot on goal in the span of 29 seconds. Soderberg has struggled significantly to score in the second half of the season, with Tuesday marking two months since his last goal, which came on Jan. 17.
“It was almost like the ‘Thrilla in Manilla,’ we just rope-a-doped them,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. “I think they got tired going in our offensive zone for the whole period, but they almost seemed like they were in there for 19 minutes.”
And still, nothing.
Scoring has been a problem for the entire team in the last couple of games, with the Bruins notching just five goals in their last four games, though they did win two of them. They are now 19th in the NHL in scoring, at 2.60 goals per game. Just one team in the playoff structure (Montreal, 2.55) is scoring fewer goals a game than the Bruins.
The messages related to that are mixed. More traffic in front, Eriksson said. Maybe too much traffic in front, Julien said. Either way, all agreed that they made it too easy on Lindback, who was a late decision by Nolan in net, even with all the shots.
“We’ve told ourselves that we needed to find a way to get that second goal or even the third one,” Patrice Bergeron said. “We needed to find a way to give ourselves a cushion and we didn’t do that and it’s pretty easy when you don’t have that killer instinct for other teams to get back. It’s just one shot away, and that’s what they did.”
And so, while the Bruins certainly dominated the possession time, they didn’t have any of the finish that they needed, and that they will need as they go forward.
“I think everyone is hungry,” Eriksson said. “Everyone knows what’s at stake here and how important the points are. I don’t know what we’re doing wrong. We’re getting chances. We just need to find ways to score those goals.”
Because they didn’t, the Sabres had a chance to come back after Soderberg took a holding penalty with three seconds to go in the second. At 1:23 of the third, still on the power play, the Sabres were able to get one past Niklas Svedberg (23 of 24 saves). Rasmus Ristolainen put a long shot on net that deflected off the skate of Matt Bartkowski and in.
That was enough to take them to overtime, and to the shootout, and to get the two points that the Sabres might not have even wanted. As Bergeron said, “No disrespect, but it’s a game that we have to win.”
The points loom even larger with a crucial trip starting on Thursday, as the Bruins head to Ottawa, Florida, and Tampa Bay, taking on both of their closest competitors for the final wild card spot.
“It’s a disappointing result, for sure,” Bergeron said. “Right now we’re about getting results and getting the two points. You know what’s going on in the standings. It’s a game tonight that we knew we needed to get and we didn’t, so it is frustrating.”