BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — The Sabres failed to launch their campaign for a postseason revival. Unable to channel the energy at sold-out KeyBank Center on Thursday night, the home team got deflated by the Rangers’ defensive discipline in a 5-1 loss to start the season.
JJ Peterka scored Buffalo’s first goal for the second year in a row, late in the second period after the Rangers staked a three-goal lead, but it was hardly enough for the Sabres to avoid losing their opening game for the first time in three seasons under coach Don Granato.
“You get scored on twice in the first, I think maybe three chances against, it’s tough sledding,” Granato said. “Especially in this scenario where you’re not in a rhythm, you haven’t played games in the regular season yet. We fought hard the rest of the game to try to dig out of that.”
Devon Levi stopped 25 of 29 shots he faced for the Sabres, allowing goals to Alexis Lafreniere within the opening minutes, and Chris Kreider on a power player later in the first period. Artemi Panarin made it 3-0 in the second, and Kreider put the game away with a shorthanded goal with 8:26 remaining in the third. Defenseman Jacob Trouba added an empty-net goal, while Mika Zibanejad tallied three assists.
Struggle to score
Embracing preseason expectations to contend for a playoff spot, the Sabres came out flat in front of a full crowd energized by a pregame tribute to late broadcaster Rick Jeanneret. The Rangers had 12-7 advantage in shots on goal in the first period, and 8-5 in the second period, before the Sabres doubled their shot total with 12 in the third.
New York slowed Buffalo’s rush with a 1-3-1 forecheck and frustrated the Sabres by blocking 23 shots. Igor Shesterkin, the 2022 Vezina Trophy winner, made 24 saves to become the seventh-fastest goalie to win 100 NHL games.
“Well, we obviously have struggled against the 1-3-1 in the past and we got to figure out how to play a simpler game when we play it because we just overcomplicated it tonight,” Sabres captain Kyle Okposo said. “We’re going to face teams that play that system. We’ll talk about it, we’ll figure out a way to make sure that we’re feeling good because I don’t think anybody in this room felt good tonight, going into that game and throughout that game.”
Buffalo ranked third in the NHL last season averaging 3.6 goals per game, and scored one or fewer in 14 contests, seven at home. The Sabres had 25 or fewer shots on goal in 11 games last season, winning six of them.
“Our biggest challenge was not pulling the trigger,” Granato said. “Our goal was a perfect example. It was a shot,” by defenseman Owen Power, “it was blocked, but it pulled them out of structure. When you have teams that want to — we did not have the ability or execute on tactically the right ways to pull teams out of structure and get a random and speed game going, and that has to do with unwillingness to shoot a shot initially
With 18-year-old Zach Benson in the opening night lineup, the Sabres are once again the NHL’s youngest team. Benson, at age 18 years, 153 days, became Buffalo’s youngest skater since 1987 No. 1 pick Pierre Turgeon (18 years, 41 days).
Levi, who turns 22 in December, was the youngest goalie to start on opening night for the Sabres since 21-year-old Tom Barrasso in 1986. He’s the first rookie to start the Sabres season in goal since Ryan Miller in 2005. Levi’s .862 save percentage was his second-lowest in eight regular season starts, and came after he gave up seven goals with an .800 SV% in Buffalo’s preseason finale at home.
Benson recorded two shots on goal in 14:27 of ice time in his NHL debut, playing on the third forward line with center Casey Mittelstadt, who got in a couple shoving matches sticking up for his young teammate, and Jordan Greenway, who had a couple of big hits.
New York’s second goal came on a power play after Benson went to the penalty box for hooking. Replays showed Benson stick being held by Rangers defenseman Adam Fox on the play, which Granato called an officiating error.
Faces in the crowd
Bills safety Damar Hamlin banged a drum, inciting a “Let’s go Buffalo!” chant before the puck drop.
Hamlin was later shown on the scoreboard watching the game from a suite with Bills teammates Josh Allen, Dawson Knox and Gabe Davis.
Keen eyes also spotted Allen with a recognizable female companion.
Buffalo visits the New York Islanders on Saturday night before returning on a four-game homestand against Tampa Bay (Oct. 17), Calgary (Oct. 19), New York Islanders (Oct. 21), and Montreal (Oct. 23).
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.