Lehtonen denied all three Sabres shootout attempts and stopped 32 shots overall in a 5-4 win Saturday night, ending Buffalo’s season-opening winning streak at 10. The Sabres will settle for sharing the league record for best start to a season set by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1993.
Former Sabres player, Vyacheslav Kozlov, scored the only shootout goal the Thrashers needed, beating Ryan Miller with a snapped shot inside the left post.
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.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying. Buffalo rallied four times from one-goal deficits, with Jochen Hecht tying the game with 1:44 left in regulation.
The Sabres got a standing ovation immediately following the game, and the team responded by skating out to centre ice to acknowledge the supporters.
It didn’t mean the Sabres players weren’t disappointed.
“I haven’t felt like this in a while,” 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.”
Buffalo’s comeback certainly 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.
Atlanta’s Bobby Holik and Scott Mellanby had a goal and assist each, while Ilya Kovalchuk and Niko Kapanen also scored in a game in which the Thrashers never trailed.
Jason Pominville led Buffalo with a goal and two assists, followed by Daniel Briere who had a goal and assist. Thomas Vanek also scored for the Sabres 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 one behind Buffalo. By comparison, Atlanta didn’t register its eight 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.”
Thrashers coach Bob Hartley was certainly pleased.
“We’re resilient,” Hartley said. “Like tonight when they scored with a minute-and-a-half left, that was playoff atmosphere out there. … They had the momentum on their side and we managed to keep our composure.”
Lehtonen was the difference, 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.
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.
The Thrashers were particularly effective in blocking Buffalo shots with defenceman Greg de Vries credited with 10 of Atlanta’s 27.
Atlanta was particularly resilient, responding 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.
Jim Slater set up Holik’s game-opening goal when he shed Dmitri Kalinin’s check and fed his teammate wide open in the slot. 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. … Hecht wore a full face shield after being struck in the face with a puck in a 3-0 win at the Islanders on Thursday. … Sabres D Henrik Tallinder did not play because of an injured forearm he hurt on Thursday. Rookie Nathan Paetsch made his season debut after being a healthy scratch through the first 10 games. … Briere extended his point streak to 10 games (three goals, 12 assists), while Kovalchuk has points in seven straight.