Friday, December 23, 2011

Sabres Troubles Started Earlier Than Some Think

The headlines in today's Buffalo News reads, Sabres Continue December Swoon and although it is true, their drop to 11th place in the Eastern Conference started much earlier as November was a tell-tale month.

But it really began in the month of October. Actually the third game of the season, their F'N Center "home" opener vs. the Carolina Hurricanes.

The chinks in the Sabres "armor" during that game were the same chinks we've seen for the better part of three seasons--turnovers, odd-man rushes against, brain-farts and not enough finish.

"We created a great number of opportunities, but we gave up some beauties. And all those beauties were given up because of plays we didn't need to make. ... We burned ourselves tonight."

That quote was from Lindy Ruff after the Carolina game. You can copy and paste it for any number of games going back to the 2007/08 season.

The Sabres' first game in November represented a different set of problems in the form of the Philadelphia Flyers.

Up until this point in the season Buffalo had not played a team considered a top contender in the east. The Sabres did face Tampa Bay the month before, but they were not a perennial contender in the east the last three years like the Flyers were. Even so, the Sabres managed to get shut out by the Lightning in the first of their home-and-home the they proceeded to blow a two-goal, first period lead on the way to a 4-3 defeat.

The Flyers, despite trading away their top two centers, are loaded up front and still bring that dominating forecheck to the rink. And the Sabres faltered badly. It took all of 6:23 before Buffalo was down 3-0 and Jhonas Enroth came off the bench to relieve Ryan Miller. Philadelphia was in lock-down mode and the game was never really close despite the 3-2 final score.

This was one of those games that sent a jolt throughout the organization. Kind of like when there's a serious plunge in the stock market proceeding a major down turn.

Despite a major red flag going up, the team was able to right the ship for a series of games vs. weaker opponents. Following the Flyers debacle, the Sabres played Calgary, Ottawa twice and Winnipeg, all teams near the bottom of their respective conferences.

And, just as the stock market can regain its footing after a crack, so did the Sabres as they went 4-0 including a decisive 5-1 win over Ottawa.

All seemed well for the much ballyhooed Northeast Division Showdown with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins. The Bruins, who had gotten off to a 3-7 start, were looking for their fifth win in a row. The Sabres were also looking to extend their win-streak to five games, but more importantly, they were looking to validate preseason claims that they were amongst the elite in the Eastern Conference.

Neither happened for Buffalo as the team disintegrated in the face of the Big, Bad Bruins-2011. The Milan Lucic hit on Ryan Miller has been shown ad nauseum and the lack of response by the Sabres has been beaten to death, but what that game did was push Buffalo down off of the Northeast hill with a force that they still haven't recovered from.

That game was a beat down plain and simple. The Sabres lost what little heart they had, their confidence was thrown in the toilet and it began the unraveling of one of the top goaltending tandems in the league.

Up until that game, Jhonas Enroth was playing so well that there were calls for him to be the #1 goalie and for Miller to be shipped out. With Miller sustaining a concussion because of the Lucic hit, the fans got their wish. Although Enroth's record was 3-4-1, his gaa went up considerably, his save% went down and he was yanked in two of those games.

No loss was more painful during that stretch than the Columbus game on Black Friday. Even though the Sabres had failed miserably against the cream of the Northeast crop--Philadelphia and Boston--at least they'd been able to take care of the lesser teams. It was something that kept them in the top-six to that point.

Columbus was last in the league when the teams met the day after Thanksgiving, and what ensued was yet another embarrassing loss. It was a Sabres team that looked like it packed it in. Enroth, who had once been the benefactor of tight play in front of him got burned and then pulled in the 5-1 humiliation at the hands of the Blue Jackets.

Although the Sabres were able to split the final two games of November, thanks to a Washington Capitals effort more egregious than the Sabres in Columbus, the three embarrassing, humiliating losses were taking their toll on the team.

When you look at the 7-6-1 overall record for the month of November, it looks as if the team struggled, but still managed to snare a good amount of points, especially when you look at the injury list they had. Just to recap, at one point Tyler Ennis (out since October,) was joined by Ryan Miller, Cody McCormick, Mike Weber as of Nov. 16th. They were all joined by Tyler Myers, Brad Boyes and Patrick Kaleta during a three day span (Nov. 23-25.) And for the Washington game this group was joined by Robyn Regehr and Drew Stafford (which tells you how poorly the Caps played that game.)

But when you break down that record for November you'll find that their seven victories were against teams all outside of the playoff picture at that time. They were beaten handily by teams in the playoff picture--Philly, Boston (1st meeting,) New Jersey and Phoenix. During their last four games they went 1-2-1 with outright losses to last place Columbus and a lower third NY Islanders team. Their overtime loss was to the Bruins in "the rematch."

The "December Swoon," it would seem, is nothing but an extension of how this team has performed against quality opponents ever since they came back from Europe at the beginning of the year.

But, any way you cut it, the Sabres are struggling and there are a loads of questions as to if and how they'll get out of it.

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