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Blackhawks can’t hold third-period lead in loss to lowly Sabres

BUFFALO, N.Y. — There was a time not too long ago when the baseball-swing goal Jonathan Toews scored 20 seconds into the third period Saturday would have been a death knell for any opponent, let alone the hapless Sabres.

Nineteen minutes and 40 seconds would not have been enough time for a team to claw its way back against the Blackhawks, whose killer instinct enabled them to go two entire seasons (2014-16) without losing a game in regulation that they led after two periods.

But it’s a familiar refrain this season: These Hawks aren’t those Hawks. So less than two minutes after Toews gave the Hawks the lead, the Sabres responded. Nicholas Baptiste scored the first of his two goals on deflections to send the lowly Hawks to a 5-3 loss to the lowlier Sabres.

‘‘Recently, we’ve had three or four games where we had leads and didn’t come up with points,’’ coach Joel Quenneville said. ‘‘That’s tough, whether it’s predictability or doing the right things with the puck at the right times of the game or a combination of things. You take a penalty with a couple of minutes to go, and it’s in our net at the end of it.’’

Patrick Kane (left) and Jordan Oesterle celebrate Oesterle's goal during the second period Saturday afternoon. (AP Photo)

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That was Brent Seabrook, whose hooking penalty while trying to break up a chance by Jack Eichel led to Baptiste’s second goal, which made it 4-3 with 1:56 left. Sam Reinhart capped his three-point game with an empty-netter in the final minute.

The third-period throttle has been hard to find this season for the Hawks, who are 27th in the league with a .783 winning percentage when leading after two periods (18-2-3), although this game didn’t technically qualify because Toews’ go-ahead goal came in the third. They were 30-2-3 when leading after two last season, 37-0-4 in 2015-16 and 25-0-0 en route to their last Stanley Cup in 2014-15.

‘‘I wasn’t around to experience those third periods in the past, but I think it might just be a little bit of a lack of focus,’’ said defenseman Jordan Oesterle, who scored but was on the ice for four Sabres goals.

Obviously, the personnel has changed, and goalie Corey Crawford’s absence can’t be overstated. But Toews can’t explain it.

‘‘That’s a good question,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t think we’re letting up on each other; I think we’re still working. We just need to keep working, finding ways to put complete games together.’’

The Sabres’ quick response — Baptiste deflected in a shot by Nathan Beaulieu at 2:17 of the third — was a familiar one. On Thursday in Winnipeg, Brandon Saad scored 11 seconds into the game. The Jets tied it up three minutes later and led 5-1 after one period.

‘‘Seems like it comes in clumps,’’ Seabrook said. ‘‘Historically, we’ve been good at shifts right after giving up a goal or scoring a goal or whatever. Those are the important shifts in the game.’’

After 10 consecutive games against teams fighting for the playoffs, this was the first truly meaningless one the Hawks had played since last month. And it showed in their lack of energy early, as they fell behind 1-0 after one period.

Things picked up in the second, with Oesterle converting a backdoor pass from Patrick Kane to tie the score. Ryan O’Reilly and Tomas
Jurco then traded goals before Toews batted in his own rebound.

The stage was set for a vintage Hawks close-out. Instead, it was just another fade-out for a team that has lost its killer instinct, its edge and its aura of invincibility.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com