The Islanders are playoff-bound and still vying for home-ice advantage. With nothing left on the line this season, the young Sabres are auditioning for 2021-22.
This deep into a season, those often are the toughest teams to face.
"Yeah, definitely, that was a point of emphasis going into the game," defenseman Adam Pelech said. "They have a ton of young guys in the lineup. They have a lot of skill and they have nothing to lose, so they’re playing free. We knew what to expect. Unfortunately, we just didn’t do what we needed to do."
The Islanders couldn’t hold a two-goal lead and lost, 4-2, in Buffalo on Monday night as the Sabres scored three times in the third period.
Semyon Varlamov (36 saves) had his shutout streak end at a team-record 248:00, the 12th longest in NHL history and the third longest in the expansion era (since 1967-68).
The Islanders (31-16-5), coming off emotional back-to-back shutouts over the Rangers, dropped to fourth place in the East Division, four points out of first and one point behind the third-place Bruins, who have played one fewer game.
"We had two really strong performances against the Rangers," Matt Martin said. "That’s something that we should have carried into tonight.
"We didn’t play our game consistently enough and gave up 40 shots, and that’s not like us. We can feel a little humbled today and get back on the wagon tomorrow."
The teams will play again on Tuesday night at KeyBank Center. The Islanders have four regular-season games remaining through next Monday’s finale in Boston.
"That’s what being a good pro is, understanding how you’re going to be successful against a team," coach Barry Trotz said. "We played with a little bit of arrogance. We were just saying, ‘It’s going to be easy, we’ve got a lead.’ We just made it easy for them."
Tage Thompson’s power-play wrister from the right circle at 14:04 of the second period brought the Sabres within 2-1.
It also ended the Islanders’ team-record shutout streak at 212:35 and snapped a run of 18 straight successful penalty kills.
Rasmus Asplund, left open at the crease, tied the score at 2 at 11:25 of the third period, ending a sequence of five straight Sabres shots.
Sam Reinhart’s winner came at 15:56. After the Islanders iced the puck, he beat Mathew Barzal on the faceoff and got to the crease to deflect defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen’s shot from the point.
Barzal was not able to convert on a chance from the low slot off a Sabres turnover just before the icing. Reinhart then added an empty-netter.
"They seemed to find a way to hang around," Josh Bailey said. "I’ve been on the flip side of things before in their shoes, late in the season and you’re not going to make the playoffs. They played hard. We expect more of ourselves, no question. Disappointed with tonight, but we’re not going to dwell on it."
The Sabres will miss the playoffs for the 10th straight season.
With the Sabres’ top four goalies injured, including Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton, Michael Houser — a 28-year-old journeyman who has played mainly in the ECHL — made 34 saves in his NHL debut. It was Houser’s first game in any league since March 7, 2020.
Pelech’s attempted feed from the left wall deflected off the stick of Sabres defenseman Henri Jokiharju and past Houser at 9:15 of the first period. The Islanders built a 2-0 lead as rookie Oliver Wahlstrom deflected Pelech’s shot from the left point at 10:42 of the second period.
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