Then again, it’s been a while.
Vyacheslav Kozlov scored the lone shootout goal as the upstart Atlanta Thrashers put an end to the Sabres’ bid for an NHL record start with a 5-4 victory Saturday night. The loss ended Buffalo’s season-opening winning streak at 10, the Sabres having to settle for sharing the league record for best start to a season set by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1993.
“I haven’t felt like this in a while. I’m a little ticked off,” Miller said. “It would have been fun to be on our own, a little piece of history. … Every night’s not going to go your way.”
It almost did. The Sabres lost despite four times rallying from one-goal deficits, including Jochen Hecht forcing overtime with a goal with 1:44 left.
The Thrashers held firm thanks to a strong performance by goalie Kari Lehtonen, who stopped 32 shots and then denied all three of Buffalo’s shootout attempts. And Kozlov sealed the win, the former Sabres player beating Miller with a snap shot just inside the left post.
“We’re resilient,” Thrashers coach Bob Hartley said. “Like tonight when they scored with a minute-and-a-half left, that was a playoff atmosphere out there. … They had the momentum on their side and we managed to keep our composure.”
The loss – the Sabres’ first in the regular season since a 4-2 defeat to Philadelphia on April 7 – also ended their 15-game winning streak over two seasons, two short of the NHL record set by Pittsburgh in 1993.
The Sabres received a standing ovation immediately following the game, and the team responded by skating to centre ice to acknowledge the supporters.
Doesn’t mean the Sabres weren’t disappointed, even after spending the past week saying their streak didn’t mean anything in comparison to their Stanley Cup aspirations.
“It’s disappointing to end the streak, but at the same time it was a lot of fun,” co-captain Daniel Briere said. “Hopefully, we can start another one right away.”
They’ll have to do it without defenceman Henrik Tallinder, who will miss up to two months with a broken left arm, which he hurt in Buffalo’s 3-0 win at the New York Islanders on Thursday.
Briere had a goal and assist, Jason Pominville had a goal and two assists and Thomas Vanek also scored for the Sabres.
Atlanta’s Bobby Holik and Scott Mellanby had a goal and assist each, while Ilya Kovalchuk and Niko Kapanen also scored in a game between the Eastern Conference’s two best teams.
Clearly, these aren’t the familiar pushover Thrashers of old. Improving to 8-1-3, they’re off to the best start in franchise history and their 19 points are two behind Buffalo. By comparison, Atlanta didn’t register its eighth win last season until its 19th game.
“We’re not here to make statements. We’re here to win hockey games,” Holik said. “We won tonight playing a good game. We matched their game. … And we’re just moving on.”
The game had a playoff-type atmosphere, featuring a raucous capacity crowd anticipating a record. One fan even brought a sign that read: “82-0: Why not?”
The electric mood was doused when the Thrashers opened a 2-1 lead on Mellanby’s goal 10 minutes in. But the crowd was certainly into it after Hecht tied the game, spending the final two minutes of regulation on its feet.
Buffalo’s comeback wasn’t a surprise, except that it fell short. The Sabres had already won five games in which they trailed this season, including three times rallying back from two-goal deficits.
“It made us believe that we would pull it off,” Briere said. “Maybe we relaxed a little. It seems like we took it for granted that it was going to happen again.”
Lehtonen and the defensive-minded Thrashers made sure it didn’t.
The second-year starter was particularly sharp in overtime, when he got his left pad out to prevent Derek Roy’s shot from in close from dribbling in with 71 seconds left.
“It feels so great to beat a team like that,” Lehtonen said, who improved his career shootout record to 7-2. “They played an unbelievable game. But we battled hard. It was a lot of fun.”
Atlanta also responded each time the Sabres scored.
Mellanby made it 2-1 a mere 44 seconds after Briere tied the game in the first period. Kapanen then made it 3-2, backhanding in a carom off the end board into the open side, less than two minutes after Vanek scored with six minutes left in the second period.
The Sabres were sloppy in opening the game, a habit they’ve been unable to shake this season, having allowed 10 first-period goals, the most of any period.
Mellanby’s goal came on the transition after Buffalo’s Maxim Afinogenov, with a weak drop pass, turned the puck over at the Atlanta blue line.
Notes: Holik played in his 1,100th career game, while teammate Steve Rucchin played in his 700th career game. … Thrashers D Greg de Vries was credited with 10 of the team’s 27 blocked shots. … With Tallinder out, rookie Nathan Paetsch made his season debut after being a healthy scratch through the first 10 games.