Saturday, November 15, 2014

Half-blind after watching the Sabres and Bills last night

Reprinted with permission from

Any Buffalo sports fan who had one eye on the Sabres game and the other on the Bills last night is lucky to be able to see this morning. The Sabres lost 6-3 at Minnesota while the Bills turned in a clunker at Miami 22-9 in a game that had playoff implications despite being played in mid-November.

For Sabres' fans, losses are expected, unfortunately. All they're asking for is an honest effort and that Connor McDavid stops getting into fights. Yet, for as bad as this year has gone, these last two losses vs. a very strong St. Louis Blues club and a very good Wild team have provided some positives that look to be longstanding.

Against the Blues they managed to keep it relatively close for most of the game while pulling up their man pants and actually sticking up for each other and last night they scored three goals. It was the first time they've scored more than two goals in a game since their three-goal "outburst" against Carolina on October 14th.

Glimmers of hope are being seen on a sporadic basis as evidenced by the play of their two rookie defensemen, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov. Head coach Ted Nolan has had them as a pairing and they've been playing extremely well together. Over the last three games when each opponent has scored six goals (including Pittsburgh,) the "Twin Towers" have each averaged over 20 minutes of ice-time and are a combined plus-1. They've been on the ice for six of the 18 goals against, three of them while short-handed.

Get your tickets now. It's like going to see a band in it's infancy. There's a chemistry between Ristolainen and Zadorov and despite them being from different countries, they're communicating with one another and playing off of each other.

Another glimmer is center Zemgus Girgensons. Last night he potted his fourth goal of the season as he flicked a quick snapshot top-shelf past Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper. Girgensons is now second on the team with four goals (Tyler Ennis, 5) and is third with eight points behind Drew Stafford (10) and Ennis (9.) His minus-1 tops any Sabres player who's played in 12 games or more. Keep in mind that this is a 3-13-2 hockey club that has a minus-42 goal differential.

One of the coolest things last night that Sabres fans saw, was Nolan tapping into his Latvian National experience. Between periods we were shown how he used "The Latvian Wall" for their first goal. With the Wild attacking, the Sabres lined up four across their blueline. When the puck was shot deep in their zone, Ennis retrieved it and sent it all the way into the Wild zone where Girgensons retrieved it to nullified icing. He picked it up in the corner and got it to Matt Moulson on the half-wall. Moulson's shot was kicked out to Ristolainen at the opposite point and the big d-man got his shot to squeak through for his first goal of the season.

It's baby steps like these that keep the eternal flame of hope burning for Buffalo sports fans.

But the Bills were another story. They laid another egg last night in their loss to Miami as their league-worst red-zone percentage got worse and their head coach, Doug Marrone looked defeated.

Owners Kim and Terry Pegula will have some decisions to make, if they haven't already. After being approved as owners just before the first Miami game on September 14, their Bills have gone 3-5 and are effectively out of the playoff race at 5-5 on the season.

It's hard to see them keeping this coaching staff on, even if they can guide the Bills to a noble run to .500. And even that looks difficult as they would need to beat the upstart Cleveland Browns in addition to winning the games they should over the NY Jets and Oakland Raiders.

Former Buffalo Bills standout Steve Tasker speculated on what losing the Miami game, and in effect missing out on the playoffs, could mean for Marrone and company. “You’re not out of it (if you lose)," he said, "but when it comes down to it, there’s a lot of teams in the AFC that are sitting right there where you’re at." And of those teams in the AFC wild card playoff mix, the Bills have the worst conference record at 2-5.

It was a make or break game last night and they broke. It wouldn't be surprising to see this team unravel just like it's done so many times during their 14-year absence from the playoffs with Marrone and his staff getting the axe at the end of the season.

Tasker acknowledges that, but leaves the door open to any possibility including a Pegula ownership who supposedly have a "template" based upon patience.

"They did [not] come in with a big broom and clean the entire building out." said Tasker. "They sat there and watched, they learned what was going on, they had a lot of meetings to learn how the game was played, how it was officiated, how teams were built and what they should do. They didn’t just come in and summarily fire people just because they could. They really learned what was going on, why the team had been successful in the past and why it wasn’t successful."

But what's missing from the "template" Tsker laid out was the end result--the collapse of the Sabres despite Pegula's financial commitment in the 2011 off season. After getting the players that would supposedly make them a playoff team, within six months the dream was shattered and designs for a complete rebuild was forming.

By giving his GM and coach the benefit of the doubt, an indubitably a noble gesture, the team wasted a lot of time and resources.

But Tasker seems to be in tune with the Pegulas and sees them taking a similar approach with the Bills. “They are very patient in what goes on in making changes,” he said. “I think (Marrone and his staff) will be given a fair evaluation. There won’t be any knee-jerk reactions to this season. I think this is a very fair organization at the ownership level, and they seem to be very willing to wait until they feel like they know enough to make a smart decision before they start firing people.”

To many fans who woke up this morning with only one eye after gouging the other one out, why wait? Desperate times call for desperate measures.

As of right now the Bills' only saving grace is their defense, despite their propensity for giving up big chunks of yardage on 3rd or 4th down and (very) long that invariably end up in first downs (or touchdowns.)

Their offense is downright offensive and the brains behind it looks more like a behind than a brain. If Marrone has any brains, he'll want to save his own behind, by dumping his offensive coordinator, Nate Hackett.

This isn't college where the two were some "dynamic duo" leading a poor Syracuse team to a .500 record. This is the pros. Orange is merely a color at this level, one that happens belong to a team that's light-years ahead of the Bills, the Denver Broncos.

If these are desperate times and Marrone wants to save his ass he needs give his sidekick one more secret Orangeman handshake before showing him the door. And if he can't do that, he and Hackett can walk hand in hand into the the cold, dark night of coaching footnotes.

The Bills have 10 days before their next game against the Jets, plenty of time for the ensuing turmoil of a coaching change to recede. And it's the Jets, certainly not a laughing stock right now with Michael Vick playing pre-dog football, but certainly not the Broncos.

The Pegulas need to do something even if it calls for busting out the big spot light and shining that "CG" in the sky.

At least Chan Gailey has the experience to mask weaknesses and get the offense into some sort of rhythm. He did it with Ryan Fitzpatrick behind and a patchwork offensive line without a player the caliber of Sammy Watkins.

Or find someone else, for that matter. Just do something.

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