Thursday night the Florida Panthers played host to division rivals, the Buffalo Sabres. Even at such an early point in the season, it was a big game for both teams, who were only separated by a point in the standings. With a win, Buffalo looked to improve to .500 for the first time in over a year, and came into the game on a hot streak, having won four out of five games for the first time in nearly a year. Florida has recently enjoyed success against Buffalo, especially at home, defeating them in their last four home games, and was on a nine game point streak against them. Florida’s string of luck against Buffalo ended with a 3-2 loss that could easily have gone the other way, or just as easily could have been much more lopsided.
The first period was fairly even with the Panthers’ Roberto Luongo and Sabres’ Linus Ullmark facing just 6 and 8 shots, respectively. In fact, both goalies even owed a little gratitude to their goalposts for keeping the game scoreless for most of the opening frame. At 7:43, Brian Gionta took a shot on net after entering the zone on a 3-on-2. Luongo just got a piece of it, but that didn’t stop the puck from taking a weird, but ultimately harmless, flop into the post. It was looking as if the game would remain scoreless heading into the first intermission, but with only 31.5 seconds to spare, Gionta got on the board for the Buffalo Sabres late in the 1st for his first of the season. Matt Moulson and Rasmus Ristolainen picked up assists on the goal and the Sabres led 1-0 after 1.
The Panthers began the 2nd period with nearly 5 minutes of sustained pressure in Buffalo’s end while Ullmark was peppered with shots, and was equal to every one of them. At 6:33, Buffalo appeared to have doubled their lead to 2-0, after Tyler Ennis banked the puck into the net off Luongo’s stick. However, Gerard Gallant used his Coach’s Challenge on the grounds that the puck was brought into the zone off-side. After a lengthy deliberation, and a consultation with the NHL Hockey Operations staff, it was determined that Ennis, was indeed off-side coming in to the Panthers end. The replays showed just how slim this call was, and a few centimeters of white ice between the skate and the blue line were the difference in a goal being upheld or overturned.
The Panthers got a goal of their own midway through the 2nd as Jonathan Huberdeau scored his first of the season, after Jaromir Jagr took the initial shot, and his rebound was corralled and centered by Nick Bjugstad. Fresh off having their goal reversed from a Coach’s Challenge, Dan Bylsma and the Buffalo Sabres appealed that Ullmark was interfered with and requested their Coach’s Challenge for a review of the play. Huberdeau did make contact with Ullmark after he was pushed into the goaltender by Jake McCabe, but the referee did not interpret this contact as interference. The goal stood and the game was tied 1-1.
Nearing the end of the period, it once again looked like the teams would go to the locker room with the game tied, but the Sabres repeated history by scoring a late-period goal (Cody Franson’s 2nd of the year) and headed to intermission up by 1.
Luongo shouldered the blame for the Sabres’ second goal
“I’ve got to make that save. Even those, with the screens, I don’t want to let a puck go through me. It’s the last thing I want. Even though they were buzzing, a shot like that can’t go through me.”
The 3rd period saw the Sabres’ first power play of the game, and they proved why they are currently ranked 4th in the league with a 25% success rate when up a man. Sam Reinhart ripped one past Luongo at 3:38 to double the Sabres lead to 3-1. Vincent Trochek made things interesting with exactly 4:00 left when he deflected a shot from Aaron Ekblad behind Ullmark getting the Panthers back to within one. The final minutes of the game were completely dominated by Florida, by Ullmark was able to shut them down and hold onto the win even as the Panthers buzzed with the extra attacker and an empty net.
While the score remained 3-2, it was not very indicative of the actual game play. On one hand, had either or both of the Coach’s Challenges (which were close calls) gone the opposite way, Buffalo would have won the game by more than a single goal. On the other hand, the Panthers completely dominated the Sabres for several lengthy periods at a time, out-shooting them 38-19, and had it not been for Ullmark’s stellar performance, Buffalo most likely would not have kept the game from hitting overtime, and may have even lost before the final sound of the 3rd period.
Gallant was understandably disappointed about the loss, but not about his team’s performance.
“Well, I didn’t like losing. But we outshot them two to one, so there wasn’t a whole lot I didn’t like. We played pretty hard, we played pretty well, we just didn’t put the puck in the net. We did have a strong finish, and we made a couple of saves, and the defenseman blocked a couple, but disappointing to lose.”
The 1st and 2nd stars of the game went to both players scoring their first goals of the season, and for standing on his head with 38 saves, Ullmark was awarded the 3rd star.
1st ☆ BRIAN GIONTA
2nd ☆ JONATHAN HUBERDEAU
3rd ☆ LINUS ULLMARK
Florida’s next face-off will be Saturday night on the road in Tampa Bay, then both teams will come to Sunrise on Monday for a Sunshine State showdown.