BUFFALO — If the Buffalo Sabres are serious about moving on to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs — and right now, whether they can advance is a rather large if — they’re going to have to get their heads in the game.
We’re not questioning whether the Sabres were mentally prepared for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarter-final against the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday night. A team coached by Lindy Ruff won’t be unprepared.
But the when the Sabres couldn’t score on a 5-on-3 advantage in the third period, one that lasted for one minute 15 seconds, alarm bells should have been ringing in the Queen City.
“Swallow it and move on to the next one,” Sabres forward Drew Stafford said. “I think we spend the next hour thinking about it, and then we have to bury it and move on. We had chances on that and we could not convert.”
Tyler Ennis had the best opportunity as two Flyers sat in the penalty box, but was stoned by Philly goaltender Brian Boucher.
That the Sabres are down 2-1 in the best-of-seven should concern them. Why? They have the best goalie in the series in Ryan Miller, and the Flyers have not had their best defenceman, Chris Pronger, who continues to recover from a hand injury. Yet it’s the Flyers who have the series lead.
“Another one-goal game,” Miller said of the score, which was made 4-2 when Kimmo Timonen put the puck into an empty net with less than 20 seconds remaining.
“I don’t think they have been outstanding and I don’t think we have been outstanding. I don’t think we have really shown our best game yet.”
Sabres fans have to hope Miller is right.
There was a clear momentum shift as the Flyers killed off a double-minor to Scott Hartnell in the latter stages of the first period and into the second period. The Sabres had five shots on goal, but Boucher made a fine kick save on Marc-Andre Gragnani to keep the game tied 1-1. Minutes after Hartnell was set free, he set up Danny Briere for a 2-1 Flyers lead, taking the once-loud capacity crowd of 18,690 at HSBC Area out of commission ... The Briere goal was a strange one. The Sabres won the faceoff deep in their zone, but the puck bounced off the end boards and Chris Butler could not control it. Hartnell scooped it up and made a quick pass to Briere, who deposited the puck into the top of the net ... If you have to be lucky to be good, and vice versa, it served Miller well in the middle period. Miller had no idea that Claude Giroux tipped a Danny Syvret shot from the point until the puck hit him in the mid-section ... The Sabres lost their best pest, forward Patrick Kaleta, to an upper-body injury in the first period. Kaleta was checked heavily to the ice by Braydon Coburn, who was assessed an interference penalty. Kaleta will be evaluated again on Tuesday ... Kris Versteeg, who had just 11 points (seven goals and four assists) in 27 games for the Flyers after the Toronto Maple Leafs traded him to Philadelphia, made a fine heads-up play to aid in the Flyers’ third goal. Versteeg controlled the puck off the side boards after a Sabres turnover and passed to Mike Richards, who in turn spotted an unchecked Nikolay Zherdev at the Sabres net. Zherdev had an easy tap-in on a helpless Miller for the goal. It didn’t help that Sabres defenceman Steve Montador was caught in no-man’s land ... The Sabres had won five consecutive home playoff games against the Flyers and outscored them 26-7 ... Miller said that on Jeff Carter’s goal in the first period, he “could not catch up to it” after the puck grazed the stick of teammate Mike Weber ... Sabres defenceman Jordan Leopold, who was sidelined with a broken hand since March 25, returned to the Buffalo lineup.
There apparently is not a clear answer as to when Pronger might return to the Flyers lineup, but general manager Paul Holmgren had a definitive response on Monday morning about his stud blueliner and an alleged second break in Pronger’s right hand, which reportedly led to a setback a few weeks ago. “That’s what I’m saying,” Holmgren said he was asked if he was saying that Pronger did not suffer a second break. “He is not coming along as fast as everyone thought at the time when the initial injury happened. When he feels like he can play, he will play.”
Pronger did not speak to reporters, but he participated in the morning skate. Holmgren reiterated what he has said before, that Pronger is day to day. Pronger had surgery on his hand on March 15 and the original prognosis was that he would miss up to four weeks.
It’s past that point now, but with the Flyers up 2-1 in the series, Pronger’s absence has not yet been a major factor.