By Bill Hoppe
BUFFALO – Somehow, despite a pretty miserable effort, the Sabres had weathered the storm Saturday against the upstart Florida Panthers, leaving them just four minutes from a victory.
At 18:24 of the second period, moments after another wretched power play drew the ire of the capacity crowd of 18,690 fans inside the First Niagara Center, sniper Thomas Vanek tied the game at 1, beating goalie Jose Theodore on a nifty wraparound.
Then, 12:53 into the third period, captain Jason Pominville tallied on the man advantage, putting the Sabres up 2-1.
When Florida’s Marco Sturm received a boarding major a few breaths later, the Sabres had seemingly seized all the momentum.
Instead, they were about to implode.
“We gave ourselves a chance anyway,” Pominville said after the Sabres’ stunning 3-2 loss. “That’s the frustrating part about it.”
Shortly after Sturm was ejected, Nathan Gerbe received a questionable tripping penalty, and then an unsportsmanlike conduct call for apparently laughing at the official.
Tomas Fleischmann tied it at 16:02 during four-on-four play, and then Jason Garrison won it on the power play at 18:17, rifling a one-timer from high in the slot past goalie Ryan Miller.
Forget about the late meltdown for a second, though. The Sabres hardly deserved to win.
“(It’s) unacceptable – unacceptable from a discipline standpoint, from a play standpoint,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “You can package that whole game and put in the unacceptable category.”
Pominville added: “What’s (angering) and what’s frustrating about it is that our compete (level) and our effort is something we can control, and we can go out there and do it.”
The Sabres can’t do it at home, where they’re just 1-3. One of the wins – a 4-2 triumph over Columbus on Thursday – they got outplayed. Remember, last year the Sabres dropped their first seven home tilts.
“Something’s got to give here at home,” Miller said. “We got to wake up and do what it takes to play a good system in this league.”
Still, the Sabres only had to milk the clock for a win. If Gerbe had simply gone to the box, it could’ve happened.
“You just have to accept the call,” Ruff said. “There’s no criticizing the official there.”
Gerbe said he lifted Dmitry Kulikov’s stick and never cursed at the official.
“I laughed,” Gerbe said. “He said, ‘Don’t laugh at me.’ I guess I continued to laugh.”
The Sabres did little well Saturday.
They thought they had opened the scoring halfway through the first, when Matt Ellis, one of the few bright spots, redirected Brad Boyes’ pass with his right skate in front. Replay officials overturned it, though, saying Ellis kicked it in.
“We were OK in the first, we were pathetic in the second and we had a little bit of energy going our way in the third period,” Ruff said.
Marcel Goc opened the scoring 6:48 into the second period, quickly spinning around and backhanding a pedestrian shot near the crease underneath Miller, who made 33 stops.
“The first goal was a big mistake and probably set us back about 10 minutes by the time we got through the neutral zone,” Miller said.
The Sabres’ struggling power play, which struck for two goals Thursday, generated little again in four tries.
“When you handle the puck the way we did, and you’re passing off sticks, missed plays – the entries started there,” Ruff said. “And once we got in the zone the execution wasn’t good.”
Meanwhile, it’s only October, but it appears the Panthers, an annual laughingstock, have possibly turned a corner. They acquired a slew of respected veterans during the offseason, including former Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell, and hired Kevin Dineen, Buffalo’s AHL coach the last three seasons.
The Panthers have 12 points – as many as the Sabres – and began the night seventh in the Eastern Conference. They haven’t made the playoffs in an NHL-record 10 seasons.