Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma is known for chopping up the season in three-game increments as a way of lookin somewhat into the future while keeping the present in focus. Buffalo came out of the Christmas break with 48 games left in the season needing to make up some ground. If a goal of winning two out of three games came to fruition, which was the stated goal around this time last season, the 64 points that they would gain added to the 34 they already had should be enough to get them into the playoffs.
That's the theory.
In practice the first three-game segment started out well with a 4-3 win at Detroit on Tuesday. Buffalo and Detroit were both coming out of the break and were sloppy at times. The Sabres took advantage of the sloppiness jumping out to a lead, the Red Wings eventually tied it but Buffalo came out on top. But last night they couldn't pull off a win against the Boston Bruins whom the Sabres are chasing.
The first period last night was about as good a 20 minutes as we’ve seen the Sabres play all season. From the early tic-tac-toe of Buffalo’s first goal 1:30 into the game to a powerplay tally with 1:45 left in the period, and all points in between, they played like their pants were on fire. It even included Robin Lehner, he of the abysmal shootout record, stopping a shorthanded breakaway and when they left the ice for the first intermission
In the second period Buffalo came out looking flat and a little confused and it didn’t take long for
to do what they do best—get under the
skin of an opponent. With the Sabres struggling in their own zone a simple shoving
match lead to a faceoff win for the Bruins, a blown coverage for Buffalo and just like
that the score was 2-1. Boston
Analyst Rob Ray warned us after the goal about the Sabres falling into a classic Bruins trap. The pesky B’s get under the skin of their opponent and the focus shifts from hockey to hostility. Sure enough, like a moth to the flame, that’s where
found themselves as they forgot what made them so successful in the first
period. Although the Sabres regrouped and actually had numerous opportunities to regain their two-goal lead, the Bruins slowly and evenly turned the game in their favor. Buffalo
Boston stifled the Sabres often and like a horsefly biting you then escaping, they nudged, hacked, face-washed and needled Buffalo off their game. The Sabres had their opportunities, but B's backstop Tuukka Rask turned back every one of them. Boston scored the game-tying goal late in the third period, then added an empty netter and left the KeyBank Center ice with a 4-2 victory to widen their gap over Buffalo to eight points.
It has a huge loss for Buffalo as they're trying to make up ground in the division and simply put, they were not ready for a contest that had the feel of a playoff game.
The Sabres did dominate the first period playing their finest period of the season, but once again, regulation is three periods and 60 total minutes. They should know what Bruins hockey is and they should have known what to expect for the second period as it's a formula Boston has been using for decades. Sabres winger Kyle Okposo knew it. He told the gathered media post-game that "when you have a period like we did, you have to expect them to come out and push."
Okposo had a goal last night and numerous opportunities that were foiled by Rask. He's been around the league a pretty long time and he knew that the Sabres blew this one. "We've got to be able to handle momentum," he said. "We played well enough to win that game tonight. We did a lot of good things, we just have to make sure we're doing things to stop their momentum. We just gave them too much of it in the second [period]."
This is an extremely difficult time for the Sabres right now. It's like being a teenager where you're going through the angst of growing pains while life thrusts your eyes wide open to the world around you. If there is one thing we should have all taken away from last night's game in that the team should know who they are. This needs to be said because there were two different personalities on display this season--the lockdown defensive game without Eichel and the aggressive, up-tempo game with him on the ice, which was on display in the first period and at other times since his return.
It's a fun game to play, a fun game to watch and as has been shown for brief stretches this season, it can produce a devastating, blitzkrieg of an attack.
That's all well and good but a thousand little adjustments need to be made in game by the players and especially the coaching staff. The Sabres should have known how the Bruins would be coming out in the second period. If it was a matter of execution, as intimated by Okposo, then its on them. If it was a poor game-plan, then it's on the coaching staff.
One way or the other, the Sabres failed a big test last night. Is it cause to stick a fork in their playoff hopes a mere 35 games into the season? There's a pretty good case to be made. Or is it more a lessons learned about momentum, game-management continued self-evaluation?
Who knows with a teenager? But one thing we did find last night is that they weren't ready for a playoff-like game against a division rival and if you want to make the dance, games like these are a must.
Redemption lies in Boston at 1 p.m. tomorrow as the Sabres visit the Bruins for their fourth and final meeting of the season. Boston has won all three games in regulation against Buffalo by a combined 10-3 score including one shutout.
The Sabres have recalled winger Justin Bailey from Rochester presumably to take the place of an injured William Carrier who split his hand open while in a fight with Bruins d-man Adam McQuaid last night. Bailey has been hot lately for the Amerks scoring five goals during a four-game goal-streak.
The 6'3" 210 lb. Williamsville native has 13 goals and nine assists in 31 games for Rochester this season and this will be his second stint with the Sabres. Through two games this season and 10 NHL games total, Bailey has yet to hit the scoresheet, but in his eight games last season he did everything a powerforward should except get on the board.
Bailey's speed will be a welcome addition to the Sabres at this juncture if they want to keep playing an up-tempo game as the Buffalo could use a bit more of it.
With all due respect to what they're trying to do in Rochester, there is room on the Sabres roster for the additions of Bailey and Nick Baptiste, two young players with size, speed and scoring ability. There's even room for a journeyman forward like Cal O'Reilly or a puck-moving, bottom-pairing d-man like Taylor Fedun if Bylsma and GM Tim Murray want to shake things up a bit.
Buffalo is not at the point of no return this season, but with each loss it gets closer and there are some players in Rochester who might be better equipped to jibe with what the Sabres are trying to do then the ones they have on the roster already.