The Buffalo Sabres were hoping the additions of big-name veterans Taylor Hall and Eric Staal and a significant roster changeover would help the group that includes Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, and Rasmus Dahlin to improve and challenge for a playoff spot, but back-to-back home losses to the Washington Capitals to start the season revealed some of the same issues that caused Buffalo miss the post-season for the ninth straight year in 2019-2020.
Buffalo struggled defensively in a 6-4 loss on Thursday, falling behind 4-1 in the second before a third period rally fell short. The Sabres tightened up their game in their own zone on Friday but at the cost of their offense, who managed only one goal against Capitals rookie netminder Vitek Vanecek.
Veteran goalie Carter Hutton, who had a losing record and sub .900 save percentage last season got the first start over Linus Ullmark and appeared rusty, allowing five goals on 27 shots. Ullmark benefited from the Sabres’ better defensive effort and faced only 21 shots on Friday.
“We beat them in pretty well every category except for the scoring. It was excellent to see the execution, extremely painful to see the final result.” Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger said after the 2-1 loss. “We just ran into an extremely hot goaltender at the other end. There’s not much of a five-on-five game that we didn’t like tonight. You can take a lot of confidence out of that game, and hopefully the guys (are) able to absorb this pain properly and continue with the process.”
Krueger started the season with Hall on the top line with Eichel and big winger Tage Thompson, Staal centering the second line with Victor Olofsson and Sam Reinhart and former 40-goal scorer Jeff Skinner on the fourth line, but that did not last through the doubleheader with Washington.
Staal made a fatal giveaway on Jakub Vrana’s game-winner on Thursday and after failing to convert on numerous scoring opportunities against Vanecek, Reinhart replaced Thompson on the top line and Skinner was elevated in his spot with former Carolina linemate Staal.
Skinner dropped to 14 goals last season after signing an eight-year, $72 million contract and has been heavily scrutinized by the Sabres head coach since the beginning of training camp.
“Throwing him in different spots is something you do when you try to score. Jeff is always a scoring threat.” Krueger said. “I have to think about the group as a whole. The important thing is that Jeff showed us a level today that we need to hold as an expectation every night.”