Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Scoring rut is eating away at Sabres

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 11-26-2016

After last night's 3-1 loss at Washington, the theme of the post-locker room interviews centered around frustration as the Buffalo Sabres have eclipsed the two-goal mark only once in 13 games. The goal-scoring problems had head coach Dan Bylsma visibly frustrated and rather melancholy after the game while Ryan O'Reilly sat slumping in the lockerroom laying the blame for the Capitals game at his feet.

"It's frustrating," said O'Reilly into the Sabres.com camera. "There's not much you can do. You've got to bear down a little bit more but it's frustrating. Scoring goals again is the problem."
It's not a lot of fun for Sabres fans to watch either.

This edition of the Buffalo Sabres started out the month of November by going 10 games without scoring more than two goals. Miraculously they managed a 3-5-2 record to keep them from falling to the bottom of the league. However, the lack of goal scoring is disconcerting, especially when Bylsma and Co. have at their disposal a number of 20-goal scores like O'Reilly, Kyle Okposo, and Matt Moulson as well as Sam Reinhart who scored 23 goals last season.

Only one other time in the last three-plus seasons has the team had a streak longer than 10 games like that. From October 17-November 11, 2014 that edition of the Buffalo Sabres went 13 games without scoring more than two goals. That ugly stretch featured a 2-9-2 record, a six-game stretch where they were shut out four times and scored only three goals, five goose-eggs total and only 12 goals scored in those 13 games.

Of course that was a team in serious decline with a depleted roster who's top three goal-scorers for the season were Tyler Ennis (20,) Zemgus Girgensons (15,) and Matt Moulson (13,) a trio that comprised the Sabres top line. Defensive-minded Ted Nolan was behind the bench and the team would have nine stretches of three or more games where they scored two goals or less going a combined 6-30-3.

There was another stretch during that same season where the team went 0-9-0, was shut out twice and scored a grand total of nine goals, but other than that, that stretch of futility to begin this month is reaching lows not seen since the Sabres were in the McEichel hunt.

Buffalo seemingly has lost any sense of identity during this month. Bylsma had a team on the rise last season and had them playing an up-tempo game while trying to get his defensemen more engaged in the offensive zone. That plan went to pieces as forward Jack Eichel was joined on the injury report by two capable puck-moving defensemen in Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov and O'Reilly. Bylsma tried to go all Ted Nolan in the process and managed to eek out a good number of points. But the struggles scoring have the team and individual players doing things they shouldn't.

When forward Evander Kane went down after cracking four ribs in the opener, he returned to the ice sooner than the normal six-week recovery time. "I think we all wold ave liked Evander to have had six weeks off to fully recover and heal," Bylsma told John Vogl of The Buffalo News, "I don't think you can disregard what breaking four ribs does to your body."

Yet that's what they did. Bylsma said that Kane has been playing much better the last few games and it's showed even though he still hasn't cracked the scoresheet with a goal.

Bylsma's also been shuffling the lineup, and rightfully so, as he tries to shake this team out of the doldrums, but nothing seems to be working. They're getting opportunities but with each passing game, missed opportunity or ringing of the post (of which there's been many) they're squeezing the stick a little tighter. And as the slump continues, players start trying to do too much.

Last night was a good example as O'Reilly admitted to as much. "I'm really frustrated, trying to find a way to put the puck in the net," he told the gathered media post-game last night. I'm trying to cheat a bit more, trying to create and it clearly didn't work." O'Reilly was on the ice for the Marcus Johansson goal that increases Washington's lead to 2-0 and was out of position on the goal that put Washington up 3-1. "I've got a lot of fixin' to do," he said, "those goals (against) were my fault, trying to play that way."

O'Reilly's always hard on himself, almost to a fault, but there are plenty of other players who need to get it together and it's something permeating the whole locker room. Said Reinhart. "It's frustrating. I don't know one guy in the locker room that isn't."

Reinhart scored the lone goal for Buffalo last night while on a line with Okposo, who had the primary assist and O'Reilly, who was on the ice. Other than that, the scoring troubles continue.

Things will improve with Eichel back in the lineup, something that should happen sometime in the coming week, but those looking for a Saul to Paul transformation for the Sabres might just want to temper their expectations. Eichel will help with team-speed and teams will be backing off a bit more when he's on the ice but it's still a matter of him getting into game-shape and the forward group finding chemistry with the new line combos Bylsma will be putting together.

Then there's the defense, which is another topic of conversation as Bogosian and Kulikov are still out and the entire defense combined has scored only one goal in 21 games.

Until then, the Sabres will be trudging along and hopefully they can get off the schneid when they visit Ottawa on Tuesday.

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