Sabres thoughts: Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen’s injury, Tage Thompson’s scoring slump and more

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Since Jan. 1, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has been the best goalie in the NHL, as measured by both save percentage and goals against average. His recent play has been arguably the biggest bright spot of the Buffalo Sabres’ otherwise disappointing season. But Buffalo’s lousy luck struck again on Thursday.

Approximately 90 minutes before puck drop against the Florida Panthers, the Sabres announced they had recalled goalie Dustin Tokarski from the AHL because Luukkonen is day-to-day with a lower body injury. Tokarski dressed as the backup to Eric Comrie, who hadn’t played in an NHL game since Dec. 5. Luukkonen was on the ice for the Sabres’ morning skate but had a lower-body injury that the Sabres felt could use more rest. Don Granato said there’s a good chance Luukkonen will be back when the Sabres play the Minnesota Wild on Saturday.

But even Luukkonen wouldn’t have helped them much on Thursday, when they were unable to score in a 4-0 loss to the Panthers.

Comrie didn’t have much of a chance on the first goal of the game. Aleksander Barkov stripped Sabres defenseman Ryan Johnson of the puck in the corner and then slid an easy pass to Carter Verhaeghe, who was alone in front of the net. Nobody covered him. When asked after the game about his team’s lack of offense, Granato interrupted his answer to lament the lack of a penalty call on the Panthers’ first goal.

“Unfortunate that their first goal (Barkov’s stick) was definitely on the hands of Ryan Johnson,” Granato said. “That’s what happens. That’s a quick play, tough for an official to see, but that’s unfortunate that that one ends up in our net.”

Jordan Greenway wasn’t in position to stop Barkov’s pass from getting to the front of the net, and Erik Johnson didn’t get there in time to cover since he was in the other corner getting ready to receive a pass from Ryan Johnson and start the breakout before Barkov forced the turnover.

“We should’ve had layers of insulation there,” Granato said. “There were a couple of guys. We should have had two layers there. But again, it’s a quick play. The player had to reach around Ryan and got in the gloves. Typically, those are called. I don’t know if it’s wedged. Those are hard to see when you’re on the wall and in tight but that’s unfortunate, but absolutely there should be layers of support underneath.”

One call shouldn’t be enough to ruin a game, but the Sabres again were incapable of creating their own luck. Moments before the Panthers opened the scoring, Zach Benson had a prime chance at the other end of the ice, but his backhand shot went just wide of the net. Had either that goal or the penalty call gone Buffalo’s way, maybe the game would have been different. But it speaks to the way the Sabres have played this season that one or two bad breaks are enough to sink them. The Sabres are 17-3-1 when they score first and are now 6-23-3 when the opponent scores first. By comparison, the Panthers are 12-14 when they fall behind 1-0 and improved to 23-1-4 when scoring first, after their win on Thursday.

“They locked it down pretty good, especially after the first one,” Sabres forward Alex Tuch said. “They were able to sit back and we had to play through them instead of the opposite.”

For his part, Comrie didn’t let the game get out of hand. The Panthers had a few more quality scoring chances in front of the net early, but Comrie came through repeatedly. Comrie stopped 12 of the 13 shots he faced in the first period, including four of the five high-danger shots the Panthers created. The Sabres took over the shot share from that point, but the Panthers were content to let the Sabres shoot from the outside. Anthony Stolarz finished with 45 saves, including 10 high-danger saves and only three saves off rebounds. It’s those second-chance opportunities that the Sabres needed more of.

“A little bit grittier, a little bit more of an F-U mentality, especially around the dirty areas, around the net,” Tuch said.

That’s been a common refrain from this group this season. In recent weeks, injuries are starting to pile up, and the Sabres haven’t been able to string together consistent performances for more than a game or two. They still haven’t won three games in a row all season. The Sabres’ last two-game winning streak came in mid-January, when they beat the Sharks and Blackhawks, the two worst teams in the NHL. In the eight games since, the Sabres are 2-6.

The 45 shots the Sabres had were the most they’ve ever had in a game this season without scoring a goal. This was the fourth time this season that the Sabres have been shut out and the 14th time they’ve scored one or zero goals in a game this season.

A year ago, the Sabres had the third-most goals in the NHL as their offense carried the team during stretches of inconsistent defense and goaltending. This season, the goaltending has been a strength, but the Sabres are 10 points out of a playoff spot because the goal scoring has disappeared too often.

Quick hits

1. It might be time to see what Peyton Krebs can do with more offensively minded linemates. On two different occasions in the second period on Thursday, Krebs drove the puck down the middle of the offensive zone. The first time, he passed it off when it would have been better to keep crashing toward the net. The second time, he kept the puck and drove Florida’s defense back. Neither resulted in a goal, but both plays were the product of the energy Krebs brought to this game. Krebs needs to have more of a willingness to shoot and the confidence to hang onto the puck longer. He’s a great passer, but he has more offensive skill than the linemates he’s been playing with, so he shouldn’t hesitate to carry the puck and shoot more than he does.

2. Tage Thompson had six shot attempts and five shots on net in this game, but only one shot and two shot attempts came when the Sabres were at five-on-five. The Sabres were able to match him up against the Panthers’ third line for most of the game, and he still couldn’t generate much offense at even strength. The Sabres had just 42 percent of the shot attempts when he was on the ice at five-on-five. He has just one goal and two points in his last 11 games and hasn’t scored at even strength during that stretch.

3. Jeff Skinner has also done a disappearing act for the Sabres. He hasn’t scored in his last seven games. Given that he doesn’t contribute much without the puck, that’s a problem. Late in the game, Granato put Tuch back on a line with Thompson and Skinner, so maybe that’s a way to spark something. A year ago at this time, Thompson had 36 goals and Skinner had 20. This season, they have combined for 32 goals. The lack of top-end scoring, especially on the power play, has doomed this team.

(Photo of Sabres’ Tage Thompson and Panthers goalie Anthony Stolarz: Bill Wippert / NHLI via Getty Images)

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