Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What Would You Rather End Up With?

 A flashy loss? Or a boring win?

Throughout the first half of last Tuesday's Versus' telecast of the Flyers/Sabres game, Lindy Ruff kept reminding his players that this wasn't pond hockey. Funny. That's probably the same thing he's been preaching for the past four years as his team always tries to be like the '06/7 "Ferrari" he coached in the second post-lockout year. Indubitably, that team was an offensive juggernaut that could overcome nearly any deficit at nearly any point in a regular season game.

But as much as this and the previous four incarnations of the Sabres want to be like that group, and as much as we Sabres fans would love to see that again, they just don't have the overall, top-notch talent and depth they had in 2006. They do have the overall speed of their predecessor, but their ability to finish isn't close to that level.

To Skate? Or Not To Skate? That Is the Question.

On Friday night at home versus the Florida Panthers, that question seemed to be answered in a 2-1 overtime victory for Buffalo. Unfortunately for the fans wanting to be entertained in a winning effort, it looked like a game right out of the late 90's.

"Left-wing lock." "Neutral-zone trap." "Collapsing in front of the net." It all came together to provide about as much entertainment as a Devils game from the first Jacques Lemaire tenure. About the only thing missing defensively was a version of Tampa Bay's 1-3-1.

As boring as it was, the Sabres came out with a victory. As boring as the Devils were, they came away with three Stanley Cups. Ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

And there's the rub. It comes down to wins and losses and who's left standing at the end of the season.

Still Searching For Their Identity

Lindy Ruff and his team seemed to have been searching for an identity for years, fluctuating between high risk/high reward entertainment and a boring, shutdown defense.

Looking back over the last four years, it was the latter that garnered them the most success. And that style of play, as boring as it may be, could be the identity that Lindy Ruff and the Sabres have been looking for.

After 13-plus seasons with the same head coach and the same GM searching for an identity is kind of absurd, isn't it?

Maybe. But considering all of the changes during their tenure, it's not all that surprising. They've had to continually adapt as the circumstances surrounding them changed.

And, once again, the tandem is adapting, this time with new-found freedom and heightened expectations. Terry Pegula took off the chains of the previous ownership and is letting Regier and Ruff run with it.

But, the first quarter of this season is eerily similar to the first half of last season, which is eerily similar to the 2007 and 2008 seasons. Confusion reigns as they search for who they really are and how they consistently approach games. Where once there were easy definitions like "the hardest working team in hockey" from 1999 and "the team built for the new-NHL" in 2006, about the only definition that stuck is that they're inconsistent and ill-defined, save for the fact that they're considered "easy to play against."

The last moniker, though, is not completely true. They can be tough to play against like in the 2009/10 season and last years playoffs versus Philadelphia, but they can be easily dismissed when they gravitate towards form over function, fashion over fundamentals.

The 2011 playoff match-up versus the Flyers last April is the epitome of the Sabres inconsistencies and provides an interesting study in contrasting styles. After four games the series was tied at two games apiece. In the Sabres wins, they gave up zero goals. In their losses they gave up nine. In their wins they tightened things up and scored the few opportunities afforded them. In their losses, they opened things up and got burned.

Which brings us to this season. Last Tuesday, the Sabres coughed up a three goal lead to the Flyers and eventually lost in overtime. They came out and skated themselves to a 3-0 lead but eventually fell into unhealthy habits like turnovers and defensive zone breakdowns. They just didn't know what to do out there, had no idea as to who they were or needed to be. There were other factors involved in the loss, for sure, but they had no sense of focus after getting that lead, save for the 19th minute of the third when they tied it up with the extra attacker.

It's the exact same thing we've been seeing as fans for the last four years. And it's something that must surely bother Pegula. Just how long he'll live with this remains to be seen. He's said that the role of an owner is to be liked. But as the patriarch of a team that is 6-9-2 on home ice and has played some of its worst hockey to boot, he can't be too happy with the results.

Terry Pegula May Need To Step In As A Marriage Counselor

Ultimately it's up to the owner to define what he wants from his franchise. Presently it would seem as if his GM and Coach are suffering from a divorce of styles. The former seems to be geared towards finesse while the latter is seems to need an increased level of hard-nosed compete. Whether this team, as constructed, can mold the two styles into one remains to be seen, but based upon the last four-plus seasons, it doesn't seem as if the two sides can be reconciled.

The fact is, they have a style of play that's been successful when executed properly. It's not pretty, nor is it flashy, nor is it highlight reel calibre on a nightly basis, but it wins hockey games. Its a style predicated upon simple, safe game that relies on positioning and smart plays. If and when there is a breakdown with the skaters, goalie Ryan Miller, or back-up Jhonas Enroth are usually in sync to the point where they can make a big save. And it's a style that transcends talent-level. It's called playing as a team.

Three days after the blown lead to Philadelphia, the surprising Florida Panthers came to town and the Sabres came away with at 2-1 overtime win. To say this game was a defensive struggle is an understatement. Either goalie could've been one of the stars of the game with a spectacular save or two. Outside of the three goals scored (two on breakaways by the Sabres, the other on a five-on-three for the Panthers,) there were very few bonafide scoring opportunities.

Jason Pominville, who scored the game winner, put it this way, "It wasn't a pretty one, but we got it done against a team that was going really well," he said. "We talked about trying not to hand them opportunities by giving pucks away, and we were better with the puck. You want to generate more, but at the same time I thought we stuck with it."

Ryan Miller ponied on that, "It probably wasn't the most exciting game for the fans, but I'm glad we stuck with our system," Miller said. "We had a tired team that was going to try and trap us, and I thought we did a good job of eliminating odd-man rushes and turnovers. Sometimes that's how you have to do it."

Lindy May Be Coming Full-Circle

The "system" that Miller is alluding to is one that's predicated upon defensive zone responsibilities, a strong back check, a strong compete to get the puck, smart plays to dump the puck out of the zone, using speed on the counter-attack and burying what few opportunities they might have in the game.

This is the same system that was evident in the two shutouts of the playoff match-up with the Flyers last April. And it was a system that helped Miller win the Vezina Trophy back in 2010.

It's also a style of play that Ruff knows well dating back to his first foray into coaching. He was an assistant with the Florida Panthers back in the mid-90's under head coach Doug MacLean. In 1996 the Panthers made an unlikely run all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Florida had an average at best team that went 41-31-10 in the regular season. Their top point producer was Scott Mellanby who's 70 points was less than half of league-leader Mario Lemieux's 161 and runner up Jaromir Jagr's 149. But the Panthers played a solid team game bolstered by a goalie, John Vanbiesbrouck, who played a solid, if unspectacular, game.

That team opened their playoff run against a pretty good Boston Bruins team and defeated them resoundingly four games to one. Next they upset the Philadelphia Flyers--featuring one of the league's top goalies in Ron Hextall and one of the most feared forward lines in the league as well, "The Legion of Doom"--in six games. The Panthers then proceeded to beat Lemieux and Jagr's Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The dream eventually came crashing to an end, as former Sabres draft pick Uwe Krupp scored the Game Four, series-clinching, triple-overtime winner for the Colorado Avalanche. But it was a helluva run for a decidedly underdog group of overachievers.

Ruff saw first-hand how a team, one with a lot less talent then he presently has, can go far in the playoffs. And he brought that with him to Buffalo in 1997. In his first season as the Sabres head coach they reached the Eastern Conference Finals. The following year he managed to get his club to Game-6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals on the strength of Dominik Hasek in goal, and with a team dubbed "the hardest working team in hockey."

Trends Come and Go, But Solid Defense Is Never Completely Out Of Vogue

Lindy's system which came so close would soon be cast aside as GM Darcy Regier rebuilt his team for "the new-NHL." Gone was the grit and determination and the teamwork that went into the five previous playoff seasons. It was replaced by skill and finesse; and lots of it. Regier loaded up for a "new-NHL," one that would take the chains of clutching and grabbing off of skill players and allow them to skate unobstructed.

It's now been nearly four and a half years since "the new NHL" and the "Ferrari" that was the 2006/7 Buffalo Sabres had their zenith. And for the last four-plus years, the era-specific race car Regier built finds itself in a stock car race with restrictor plates.

Just what goes on behind the scenes when Regier and Ruff get together is unknown, but there seem to be a distinct separation between what the former sees as a successful formula and what the latter can do with the pieces he's given.

No Free-Pass For the Coach

Ruff, for his part, is not an innocent bystander in the process, nor should he be exonerated for the on-ice product either.

His failure to provide a definitive style of play has lead to inconsistency from game to game, period to period, even shift to shift. And nowhere is this schizophrenia more pronounced than in net. Their goaltending, is directly affected by the success and failure the team playing in front of them.

In Miller's 2010 Vezina season, Hank Tallinder and Calder winner, Tyler Myers provided a solid top-pairing who were a combined plus-26 on the team and anchored a penalty kill that was second in the league. It was a defense corps that also had dependable vets like Toni Lydman and Steve Montador. Youngins like Andrej Sekera and Chris Butler kept it as simple as possible.

The Sabres ended up winning the Northeast Division that season despite the fact that the they lacked a true #1 center and had a top-six that was brutally inconsistent at times, which was exposed in their six game loss to Boston.

They followed that playoffs with an atrocious start last fall, one that, not surprisingly featured a team that could not figure out who it was. Former Captain Craig Rivet mentioned early on last season that the team didn't have an identity. Eventually, after a sub-.500 first half, they found their way.

Beginning in the 2011 portion of the season, the team roared back and was one of the hottest teams in the NHL come playoff time. On more than one occasion players were heard to say that they were playing more like a team and it would seem as if their inner desire came to the fore. How many time have you heard Lindy Ruff as his team to play "out of character?" For the the first time in three and a half years, the team did exactly that to reach the playoffs as a 7th seed.

In the first four games versus the Flyers, they played so "out of character" that a Philadelphia sports piece the Sabres were said to be actually "out-physicaling" the Flyers.

The Sabres fell in seven games, but it was actually lost in Game-6, in overtime, when a very young defense finally succumbed to an experienced group of talented Flyers forwards.

Enter A 2011/12 Season With Big-Time Acquisitions and Increased Expectations

The premise this season was to get his defense, to jump into the play more. Offensive-minded defenseman Christian Ehrhoff was acquired and the team started no less than five offensive-minded puck movers on the back end. Of course this lead to a high-risk/high-reward style that's been inconsistent at best, a disaster at worst. The Sabres goalies have been hung out to dry way too much and they have been up the the Hasekian task of stealing a game on a nightly basis.

It wasn't until Friday's game versus the Panthers that the team finally seemed to figure it out. Caught in a situation where numerous regulars were out due to injury, the team was filled with an inordinate amount of youngins and borderline AHL'ers called up from Rochester as replacements for the fallen. Ruff simply could not preach anything other than sound, fundamental hockey as he was forced to simplify his gameplan.

And they came out on top versus a team that had been on quite a roll. The Sabres team that showed up at the F'N Center that night was a team that Ruff knows well. It's devoid of the elite Sidney Crosby's, Pavel Datsyuk's and Alex Ovechkin's. It was a group of players working hard as a team in a game where they would allow no puck would go unchallenged, nor would the opposition be allowed to get off a decent shot. It worked. And they won.

They played a similar style the next night versus the Rangers, but unfortunately a combination of weak goaltending by Enroth and missed opportunities by the forwards equaled a 4-1 loss. It wasn't a bad game, per se', but when those two factors come together, it usually ends up in a loss, for any team.

What's the Formula For Success With This Team?

Because of circumstances Ruff was forced to revert back to his original self this weekend, with a coaching style long on defense, short on gambling. And maybe he's even come full circle.

He will have a tough decision to make when his injured regulars return, will he continue to go high-risk high-reward or will be keep it simple? Will it be better for this team to think offense first and try to lock things down or lock it down first and counter-attack?

Will he continue to coach a flashy loss or a boring win?

What would you rather see?

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