“It just looked like no one really had any flow to their game,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. “It looked like we mismanaged the puck. After a slow start, you’re just waiting for eventually some line to get you going and you’re going to have back-to-back good shifts and get some momentum. We never had the momentum back right from the beginning of the game.”
Falling behind 2-0 within the first 7:15 of the first period, the Panthers fought their way back to within one goal twice throughout the night, but inevitably fell just one short. After Skinner put the Sabres up 4-2 at 16:14 of the third, Aleksander Barkov scored at 18:31 to get Florida back within just one goal at 4-3.
In the waning minutes, the Panthers had a few last-ditch attempts, but couldn’t get one more past Linus Ullmark, who made 35 saves to pick up his fourth straight victory. On the other end of the ice, Roberto Luongo stopped 29 of 33 shots. With the loss, Florida now sits nine points out of the closest playoff spot.
“We kept coming at the end,” Boughner said. “We found a way to get three goals, but it was a tough loss just because it’s an important game. They’re all important these days, but as a team we weren’t real good tonight.”
Here are five takeaways from Thursday’s loss in Buffalo…
1. FALLING BEHIND EARLY
The first 20 minutes are starting to become the most difficult for the Panthers.
After doing a good job of limiting Buffalo’s chances in the offensive zone through the first four minutes, Skinner broke through for the Sabres, dancing through the slot and scoring to break the ice and make it 1-0 at 4:42. Then, less than three minutes later, Tage Thompson scored to extend the lead to 2-0 at 7:15.
Of the first four shots the Panthers allowed on goal, two ended up in the back of the net.
“First periods haven’t been that good lately,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “Both teams try to come out hard. When you win the last game, you feel confident and maybe you try to make that extra play. What’s been working for us is playing a simple game… in the first period we didn’t do that.”
Even during recent victories, Florida has struggled in the first period, being outscored 7-3 in the opening frame in their last four games. And although they’ve shown they can claw back from early deficits — they are 6-7-1 when trailing after the first this season — it’s not something they want to make a habit out of.
Despite winning six out of their last nine games, they have trailed 1-0 seven times in that span.
“We have to be better, obviously,” Boughner said. “We do a good job of coming back. Again, we did the same thing tonight… It’s tough playing catchup every night.”
2. SKINNER WITH THE WINNER
With Jack Eichel out of the lineup, Skinner picked up the slack for the Sabres.
Eichel, who’s registered a team-leading 49 points (15 goals, 34 assists) in 40 games this season, was ruled out of tonight’s with an upper-body injury earlier in the day. In his absence, Skinner carried the scoring load for Buffalo, lighting the lamp twice – including the game-winner late in the third period.
“We gave them a couple easy goals that we could have definitely avoided,” Panthers winger Mike Hoffman said. “We made a strong push back in the second. I thought we were the better team in the second period, and then the third was kind of back and forth. It’s never easy to come back from two goals against any team in this league.”
Skinner, who now ranks second in the NHL with 28 goals, has scored in all three games against the Panthers this season.
3. LET ME BE FRANK
Frank Vatrano continues to produce in the goal-scoring department.
Flying up the ice on a 2-on-1 break with Jayce Hawryluk after receiving a nice breakout pass from Colton Sceviour, the speedy Vatrano opted to take the shot himself, beating Ullmark with a blistering wrist shot that got the Panthers on the board and made it 2-1 at 13:42 of the second period.
“Scevs did a great job keeping the play alive and hitting me in stride,” Vatrano told FOX Sports Florida’s Randy Moller during the second intermission. “I saw Howie was with me, and I was kind of reading the defenseman. I saw the defenseman slid to him, so I just let it go.”
In his first full season with the Panthers, Vatrano has cemented himself as a reliable goal scorer. With his tally tonight, the 24-year-old forward surpassed his previous career-high he set back during the 2016-17 season with Boston. In 54 games since being acquired from the Bruins in February, he’s tallied 16 goals.
With 17 points (11 goals, six assists), Vatrano ranks sixth on the Panthers in scoring this season.
4. HOPE FROM HOFFMAN
Hoffman gave the Panthers some hope in the third period.
On the power play attempting to dig out of a 3-1 hole, Hoffman swept in a loose puck in the crease after Jonathan Huberdeau was denied on the doorstep to cut Buffalo’s lead to 3-2 with 8:45 left in regulation.
The goal was Hoffman’s team-leading 19th of the season and 10th on the man advantage.
“You always hope your special teams can help out throughout the season,” Hoffman said. “But there’s still a lot of 5-on-5 hockey that there’s to be played. You sharpen that setup a little bit, for sure.”
A high-volume shooter, Hoffman unleashed four shots on goal against the Sabres to increase his total this season to a team-leading 132. The 29-year-old winger has registered 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) over his last 15 games, with 11 of those points coming with the extra attacker on the ice.
We’ve had one, yes. But what about a second all-star?
With Keith Yandle already heading to San Jose for the 2019 All-Star Game, Panthers fans will have one week to provide him with some company, as the NHL’s new “Last Men In” vote is open from now until Jan. 10. In this new format, the player with the most votes from each division will be added to the event.
Each of the 31 NHL teams have one player on the ballot, with Barkov representing the Panthers. Against the Sabres, Barkov finished with a goal and an assist.
Barkov, who made his all-star debut last season, currently sits in second on the team in points (41) and third in goals (16). In his first season wearing the “C” for the Panthers, the Selke Trophy candidate also ranks second in the league in takeaways (58) and first among forwards in ice time per game (23:12).
Fans can vote for one player from each division HERE, with 10 ballots being allowed per day.