BUFFALO — The Flyers and Sabres both entered Wednesday night's matchup seeking better starts to their games.
There ends any similarities between the teams, or their current plights.
Because while starts like last night's have been toxic to the high hopes the Flyers held entering the season, the Sabres have surprised both themselves and the rest of the NHL with both their rallying power and their current status among the NHL's best teams. Amid what is now a seven-game winning streak after Wednesday's 5-2 thrashing of the Flyers, the Sabres have rallied from behind five times to win, including a 4-1 second-period deficit Monday in Pittsburgh, and now own a 14-6-2 record.
No such heroics were needed against a Flyers team that is again trending downward, and again without Brian Elliott — the closest thing to a No.1 goaltender Dave Hakstol has had to work with in his three-plus seasons as head coach. After six consecutive games in which they scored first — and got points — the Flyers fell behind for the fourth straight game.
The Sabres got the message their coach Phil Housley had delivered after Monday's 5-4 overtime win, melting the Flyers' disjointed defense from the opening draw with a relentless forecheck, peppering AHL call-up Alex Lyon before he could register even a semblance of comfort.
Ten minutes in, it felt like Drew Brees was out there somewhere. The Sabres had pushed three past Lyon, had outshot the Flyers, 10-2. "We didn't give our goaltender a chance to get into this hockey game," said Flyers coach Dave Hakstol. "And on the flip side, he didn't give us a save early on either. The two go hand in hand."
"It's not acceptable," said defenseman Christian Folin, who was on the ice for three of those four goals, which included a power play score. "We've talked about it from the start of the season about wanting to have good starts. And for the last five six games we've had good ones. Then we have two days off and we come and we show that kind of a start. No emotions whatsoever. Just flat."
Said Flyers captain Claude Giroux, "Lost battles. Didn't make plays. Played on our heels… Not acceptable. Pretty (ticked) off."
"I don't know if we left our legs in Philadelphia," said Folin, inserted into the lineup late in place of Andrew MacDonald to give the Flyers added physicality. "(But) it can't happen."
By the end of that first period, fourth-line center Johan Larsson had increased it to 4-0 and the Flyers, thanks to some initiative by Scott Laughton on the Swedish-born Larsson, had their first fight of the season.
To say that inspired the Flyers would be to ignore the obvious: Their first shot of the period did not come until 5:26 was gone. It resulted in a goal, Giroux roofing Sean Couturier's pass from behind the net past Sabres starter Carter Hutton. More aggression followed, and Wayne Simmonds cut the comeback task in half, banging in Jordan Weal's tip-in try at 13:51 — moments after Nolan Patrick and Zemgus Girgensons scrummed near mid-ice.
Meanwhile, Cal Pickard, replacing Lyon to start the second period, was hardly tested. After that hot start, the Sabres mustered only two shots over the second half of the first period and that indifference — and a less panicked Flyers approach — carried over to a five-shot second period.
During their streak, the Sabres have won five times despite trailing going into the third period. The Flyers have done that just once in the 10 games in which they were losing entering the final period.
They had their chances. Moments after Travis Konecny could not get his stick on a cross-crease tap-in, Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen gave the Flyers their first power play of the night. But the power play, which appeared to have found some answers in Saturday's 6-5 loss to Tampa, was as tepid as in the games that preceded that 3-for-5 afternoon, mustering just a pair of long-range shots by Giroux.
Really, almost as tepid as their toxic start.