BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Starting the season with five of six games at home, the Sabres had an opportunity to make early strides in their push for playoff contention. They haven’t capitalized on that chance, with a 4-3 loss against the Calgary Flames on Thursday night at KeyBank Center dropping the Sabres to 1-3-0 in the early going.
Buffalo got goals from Erik Johnson, Tage Thompson and JJ Peterka, while Rasmus Dahlin and Dylan Cozens each had two assists in a game the Sabres came back to tie three teams, but never held the lead.
Rookie goaltender Devon Levi made a season-high 32 saves in the loss. Calgary out-shot Buffalo 36-27 with backup Dan Vlader in the net.
“We created our own mess tonight,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “We were sloppy. The difference in the game for me was Calgary did a nice job playing a very direct game, they got their bounces, they made their breaks. I felt we didn’t play direct enough.”
Buffalo’s 53 shot attempts were a season-high, as were the 67 going the other way. That’s more than the Sabres allowed in all but five games last season, when they ranked in the bottom quartile of the league with 300 goals against.
“We’re going to be able to score goals like that most of the year but until we have a commitment to team defense we won’t accomplish much,” said Johnson, the Stanley Cup winning defenseman acquired in free agency to give the Sabres veteran savvy and discipline in their own zone.
A dozen giveaways by the Sabres led to several scoring chances and goal sirens. A breakaway that Levi stepped up on late in the second period and a 4-on-2 leading to the Flames’ first goal in the third period were situational errors cited by Johnson.
“We have to commit to defense and when you do that, you will get offense and you will win. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve seen a lot and I’ve experienced a lot and I try to share some of those experiences,” said Johnson, who scored his first goal since April, 2022 on shot from the point at 2:02 into the first period, but also was on the ice for three goals against.
“It takes everybody, including myself, to do that,” Johnson added, “and sometimes it’s through a loss like that, which was right at our fingertips to at least get a point. You know, that’s the frustrating part. So, I think it’s a learning experience and hopefully there’s not many more of them.”
Thompson scored his first of the year after getting shutout on 12 shots through the first three games. Tying the score at 2-2 within the opening 15 minutes, Thompson tallied the Sabres’ first power play goal of the season.
Many of Buffalo’s scoreless power plays through the first three games were abbreviated stints, with eight opportunities totaling 11 minutes. They had the extra skater for 8:35 in five chances on Tuesday, generating eight shots, along with Thompson’s goal, and better rhtythm.
“When you don’t score in a while, you start to try to overcomplicate things,” Thompson said. “I think we did some video this morning and just tried to get back to basics. Just shoot, recover pucks, and I think that’s kind of the sequence that led to the goal there. Just puck recovery and kind of a scrambly play and then quick puck movement, let the puck do the work.”
Coming into the game, the Flames’ penalty kill was 10 for 10, and had a 91% success rate since March 1 of last season, best in the NHL during that span.
The Sabres’ penalty kill is now 15 of 16 this season, ranking seventh in the NHL at 94%.
The All-Star with the largest contract in franchise history set up Johnson’s goal with a pass along the blue-line, and cycled the puck to Cozens to earn the secondary assist for Thompson’s goal.
On a three-game point streak, Dahlin’s four assists are tied for the league lead among defenseman. But he’s off pace from his torrid start a year ago, when Dahlin set an NHL record with goals in the first five games, and tallied eight points. Dahlin hasn’t scored a goal yet this season.
With multiple assists for the 36th time in 359 career games, Dahlin moved past John Van Boxmeer for the third-most all-time by a Sabres defense. Phil Housley tallied two or more assists 77 times, and Doug Bodger did it in 39 games.
The Sabres will try to feed off the goat head vibes Saturday night, hosting the New York Islanders in the first of 15 games wearing their retro black-and-red jerseys.
Last season, Buffalo had a 10-1-1 record and scored 58 goals in their throwbacks. They were 6-19-3 wearing traditional colors at home, and now 1-2-0 to start this year.
The weekend crowd should be larger than the 13,025 attendance announced Thursday night, which was slightly above Tuesday’s game against the Lightning that drew 12,560.
Jonah Bronstein joined the WIVB squad in 2022 as a digital sports reporter. The Buffalonian has covered the Bills, Sabres, Bandits, Bisons, colleges, high schools and other notable sporting events in Western New York since 2005, for publications including The Associated Press, The Buffalo News, and Niagara Gazette. Read more of his work here.