By Bill Hoppe
Off they went to the First Niagara Center exits. Just 2:45 remained in regulation of the Sabres’ 5-4 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. But hundreds of fans, maybe even thousands, had already endured enough.
The Sabres had teased them once more. The frustration overwhelmed their frustrated supporters.
It didn’t matter the Sabres only trailed a goal. The team, so vile at home this year, imploded again Wednesday, blowing its early 3-0 lead.
The meltdown began seconds after Thomas Vanek’s power-play score 19:37 into the first period. Nathan Gerbe gave the puck away, and Maxime Talbot quickly converted, scoring with one second left in the period.
The gaffe turned out to be a harbinger, as the Flyers capitalized on mistake after mistake.
They tied it 14:45 into the second period, and then went up 4-3 on Jaromir Jagr’s tally at 17:18.
The capacity crowd of 18,690 fans booed the Sabres off the ice when the horn mercifully ended the period.
“What killed us is what we did with the puck,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “Our puck management wasn’t good. It cost us probably four goals on the night.”
It wasn’t the Sabres’ night, right? No way. But the Sabres tormented the crowd one more time, tying it with 1:35 left on Drew Stafford’s first tally in 14 games. The fans that had made their way outside were out of luck.
They didn’t miss much more, though, only one final mistake – the game’s most glaring.
In overtime, Marc-Andre Gragnani, stationed at the left boards in the Philadelphia zone, threw the puck up the middle of the ice. Claude Giroux intercepted, roared in on Ryan Miller alone and beat the goalie between the pads. The goal capped Giroux’s four-point night and was his NHL-leading 36th.
“I tried to make a play,” Gragnani said curtly. “They got it and they scored.”
The defenseman added: “Obviously, I’m going to make mistakes. That’s a big one. I’ll take the blame obviously on this one.”
The Sabres fell to 5-8-2 inside the FNC. They’ve lost six of their last eight overall (2-4-2).
“We need to fix it and fix it quick,” Gragnani said about the home struggles.
But what happened after that fast start? Remember, the Sabres have been making a habit of falling behind early. They trailed 3-0 to Detroit in the first period Friday. The Flyers were up 3-0 on them 6:23 in on Nov. 2.
This time, however, the Sabres turned the tables, yet frittered away the lead, something they did during several October home tilts.
“We basically gave them all their chances, just making east-west plays, they capitalized on it – simple as that,” Stafford said. “We had the lead. We had the start.”
Ville Leino’s power-play score, just his third goal this season, opened the scoring at 10:16. Rookie Zack Kassian followed at 18:55, his third in six games.
Even after Talbot scored, the Sabres seemingly grabbed the momentum back when rookie Corey Tropp pummeled Zac Rinaldo in a ferocious fight off the ensuing faceoff.
“I liked the energy. We came out hard. We came out physical,” Ruff said. “The more we played some of our defensemen, I think it fatigues a little bit, that added ice time. They’re a good speed team. I think a couple of our guys got caught up in the speed a little bit.”
Matt Read made it 3-2, and then Scott Hartnell tied it after Tyler Ennis’ giveaway. Jagr’s score was the Flyers’ fourth on 10 shots.
“We just got in a situation where they’re a team that plays well in the neutral zone because they want the puck, they want to go on offense,” Miller said. “Jagr, I thought he was pretty impressive back-checking and blocking shots. They’re aggressive on the points. They’re aggressive on the forecheck. They’re aggressive all over the place. They want the puck back.”
Thanks to Stafford’s goal the Sabres managed a consolation point. Shortly before his first tally since Nov. 4 and just his fifth this season, Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov stoned him in front.
“Just trying to hang around the front,” Stafford said about the goal. “I had a couple more chances tonight that just didn’t go in. But finally you keep at it and it goes in.”
Too bad all those fans had gone out.