BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — The Sabres were slow to wake for an early start Monday, and they never caught up with an Atlantic Division peer striding at a similar pace on the fringes of playoff contention.

In a matchup between teams tied for 10th in the Eastern Conference with 44 points coming into the game, Buffalo (21-19-2) fell behind in the opening minutes and gave up the first goal in all three periods of a 4-1 loss to Florida (21-20-4).

“We just didn’t quite start on time today,” Sabres captain Kyle Okposo said. “They obviously had some jump. It’s a big game, they knew it right away, and they came out and they jumped on us. When we realized we were in a fight, it was a little too late.”

The crowd of 15,251 at KeyBank Center watched the Sabres lose their fourth consecutive home game, following a road win at Nashville on Saturday night. The Sabres are now 9-12-2 at home this season, and 12-7-0 on the road.

“It’s something we have to look at, for sure,” Okposo said. “We’ve had some great crowds this year. We’re getting there. We’re not, obviously, where we want to be, but we’re getting there. And part of that is being extremely stingy at home and realizing we have to play just as hard when we don’t have the puck as when we do have the puck. Sometimes if you can simplify and focus on work ethic at home, it’ll go a long way.”

Alex Tuch scored his 21st goal of the season unassisted with 8:33 remaining to prevent the Sabres from being shut out for the second time in four home games. Leading the NHL in scoring at midseason, the Sabres have scored six goals in their past four losses, with only one coming in the first period.

“We just got to start more on time, be ready,” Tuch said. “I guess, maybe, not as long naps in your own bed. I don’t know, you just got to be ready. Honestly, we want to make this a building that is hard to play in and we haven’t done so so far this year, and we got to step it up.”

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 30 of 33 shots in losing for the second time in eight starts. It was the ninth time in 16 starts that the 23-year-old rookie has made at least 30 saves, and the eighth in which Luukkonen has had a save percentage of .900 or better.

“Three backdoor goals, nothing you can do about them,” Tuch said. “We got to be better in front of him, he’s been unbelievable. It’s really good to see him start growing his confidence. He deserved a win today and we weren’t able to help him out. But it helps us have confidence in front of him, but we want to be better in front of him, too.”

Florida out-shot Buffalo 10-2 in the opening eight minutes, and former Sabres defenseman Brandon Montour crashed the net and knocked in a rebound to give the Panthers the lead 4:01 into the game.

After the Sabres killed two penalties in the first 5:40 of the second period, the Panthers got a second goal from Sam Bennett at 8:04. Then 34 seconds into the third, another ghost of Sabres’ past, Sam Reinhart, set up Anton Lundell to make it a 3-0 lead. a

Florida’s All-Star forward Matthew Tkachuk had three assists to raise his season point total to 56, gaining ground on Buffalo’s All-Star Tage Thompson, who ranks sixth in the league with 58 points after going five games without a goal for the first time this season.

Tkachuk complimented the Sabres’ “great offense” before providing some insight on how the Panthers slowed it down.

“They got one at the end and they had some chances, especially in the first,” Tkachuk said “But I thought that once we stopped turning it over, once we started putting it behind their net, once we started as forwards backchecking as hard as we can and picking up guys and not letting any odd-man rushes against, that’s when we had more success.”

Tkachuk got into a skirmish with Dylan Cozens after the whistle to preceded a physical second period, but the feisty forward laughed off a suggestion that this was a chippy game.

“I wouldn’t call that a chippy game at all,” Tkachuk said. “That was a 1 o’clock, get the win and get out of here.”

This was Florida’s second win in Buffalo this season, following a feisty 4-3 victory on Oct. 15. The Panthers have beaten the Sabres in regulation in six straight meetings, with a 30-15 goal differential in those games.

The Sabres are back on the ice Tuesday night in Chicago before returning home to raise Ryan Miller’s jersey to the rafters and host the Islanders on Thursday.

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Jonah Bronstein joined the News 4 roster in 2022 as a digital sports reporter. Read more of his work here.