Saturday, October 29, 2016

Under pressure

Published by, 10-28-2016

"The first goal was kind of a punch in the gut," lamented Buffalo Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma as he addressed the gathered media post-game, "it kinda takes the wind out of our sails."

Bylsma was at his post-game presser talking about another loss, this one on the heels of Buffalo's third period collapse in Philadelphia on Thursday. In that game, the Sabres went into the third period with a three-goal lead, ready to finish off an early season, four-game road trip with two points gained in a rather decisive manner. Instead, three third period penalties lead to three unanswered third period goals and Buffalo ended up losing in the shootout to the Flyers, 4-3.

If there was ever a case for taking away the "loser point" Buffalo received for losing in the shootout, that game was it. Not only did they blow a third period lead for the second time in three games, they played keep away in the five minute, three-on-three overtime session mustering only one shot on goal. For a team that's now 2-8 in the shootout since Bylsma took over last year, playing keep away in overtime is a curious approach.

Having thick skin is a hallmark of a true professional and the Sabres certainly didn't have that coming into the game last night. How ironic that they as a team didn't have the intestinal fortitude to come out determined on Hockey Fights Cancer Night in Buffalo as a smattering of boos were heard during their 4-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild.

When asked right off the bat whether the previous game had affected his team Bylsma said, "it felt like a little carryover. We were squeezing our sticks a little bit. We weren't able to execute. We got a little nervous with the puck.

"I don't know if that's from the Philly game but that's what it felt like in the first [period]."

If Bylsma wasn't exactly sure there was a carryover, Buffalo forward Ryan O'Reilly certainly felt there was. "We were all trying to be a little too perfect, we didn't want to be the guy making the mistake.

"I felt it. The other guys felt it. We made a lot of personal errors. Guys just made little mistakes and you go into the next game and you want to play hockey but you think 'OK. I don't want to [make a mistake]"

Stop me if you've heard that one before, Sabres fans. How many times during the Darcy Regier/Lindy Ruff years did we come across situations exposing thin skin with lamentations about playing scared?

If the team is feeling this much pressure five or six games into the season, what does it say about the team moving forward?

Granted, losing Jack Eichel and Evander Kane is a big blow to the Sabres. Losing two top-six forwards on a team that's just beginning to climb out of the abyss that was two consecutive last place finishes is a huge blow. But the past two games are more about character than it is about talent and it's a direct reflection on the coaching staff as well as GM Tim Murray, who put this team together. How Bylsma and Murray address this remains to be seen, but they need to get on it pretty quick. The season could slip away as they have five games in seven days coming up.

The loss of Eichel and Kane exposed some deep flaws on this team. The overall speed of the speed of team is diminished considerably with those two out--on the forecheck and backcheck as well--and the teams sniping ability took a hit as well. Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk has been playing extremely well since landing in Minnesota and a team like Buffalo needs all the firepower it can get when facing a top goalie.

It didn't help that starting goalie Robin Lehner has been on the sidelines the last two games due to illness either. Would he have stopped the collapse in Philly? Methinks so, but more importantly Lehner seems to have a much thicker skin and may have been able to help stave off a carryover like the Sabres had last night.

Make no mistake, the Minnesota's Joel Eriksson-Ek's pinpoint laser from below the dot left many awestruck as he hit a teacup-sized area to light the lamp. Then again, had Sabres goalie Anders Nilsson been out in the crease a fraction more, that opening would have been closed. At 6'6" 217 lbs. Nilsson has a large frame, but he was deep in his crease all night, as if looking for a safe-haven, and it made him play small as his .857 save percentage in the game will attest.

Bylsma's been at the helm for over a year now. He transitioned the team from the "just play hard" philosophy of former coach Ted Nolan to a more heady, system-oriented approach which has gotten mixed results, mostly on the negative side. There was a period of adjustment where some players got it right away while with others it took some time. After laying an egg at KeyBank center to open the season, and looking like they were in complete disarray in the 4-1 loss, the Sabres looked the complete opposite in a 6-2 drubbing of the Oilers in Edmonton. However, from their they've taken four steps back.

Perhaps they have too many X's and O's right now and it's clogging up their synapses. Hockey is a game and as we've found out on many occasions the mental aspect is a huge component but sometimes getting back to basics is the best way to get out of a funk. "Just get back to playing hockey," said O'Reilly. "Win the 1-on-1 battles, support each other, play together."

Regardless of how they approach Saturday's matinee against the Florida Panthers at KeyBank Center, the Sabres will need to toughen up. If they can't handle the pressure now, they can kiss the playoffs goodbye.

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