Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Big test for Sabres, O'Reilly apendectomy, plus a lesson to learn from Rex Ryan

Published by, 12-27-2016

The last six games before the Christmas break represented a big test for the Buffalo Sabres as they were trying to get back into the thick of things in the Atlantic Division. A rough opening quarter of the season left the club near the bottom of the division and the Eastern Conference. Head coach Dan Bylsma opted to stray from the "one game at a time" approach and instead talked to the media about the next stretch of games.

"After the loss to Washington, we really looked at these six games before the break for us to really bear down and focus here," said Bylsma prior to Buffalo's game against the NY Islanders on December 16. "I think that's really why the LA win is a real big win for this group and one we want to keep going here. Yes, you can look at our opponents - Carolina [Hurricanes] twice and the New York Islanders twice - but it's just a stretch of time in the season where we really have to bear down and try and get some wins here and go on a roll."

It started out well enough, but then went sour as the team failed miserably and headed into the break on a four-game losing streak. They went from consecutive wins to consecutive losses after regulation to consecutive losses in regulation. The worrisome part was the final two games is that they came out slow, just like the previous five games, but were unable to mount a comeback. In the last game at the NY Islanders, they were blown out 5-1 and looked every bit the part of a team that now sat last in the division and last in the conference.

A shot at redemption awaits Buffalo this week beginning tonight at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit where the Red Wings have been having all sorts of trouble in the Arena's swan song. Detroit is sporting a 7-9-3 record at home and have 34 points total, just two points ahead of the Sabres having played one more game.

It behooves Buffalo to avoid giving up the opening goal for the eighth straight game as it has done them no favors. Overall the Sabres are 4-12-3 when the opponent scores first, only 2-3-3 in the last seven leading up to tonight.

Having said all that, the Sabres will be without top-six center Ryan O'Reilly who underwent a successful appendectomy over the break, according to the team. O'Reilly will be out about two weeks according to Bylsma for "rest and recovery." With him on the sidelines, here were the lines at the morning skate according to the Sabres' Jourdon LaBarber :

Marcus Foligno-Jack Eichel-Matt Moulson
Zemgus Girgensons-Sam Reinhart-Kyle Okposo
Evander Kane-Johan Larsson-Brian Gionta
Nicolas Deslauriers-Derek Grant-William Carrier

LaBarber has the defense pairings as:

Dmitry Kulikov-Rasmus Ristolainen
Jake McCabe-Zach Bogosian
Josh Gorges-Cody Franson/Justin Falk

It's also been reported that Robin Lehner will be in goal tonight.

After tonight the Buffalo has a very important home-and-home with the division's third place Boston Bruins. The Sabres are eight points behind the B's with three games in hand. Boston plays the red-hot Columbus Blue Jackets tonight, winners of 12 straight games and presently the NHL's top team.

To say that these three games are important to Buffalo is an understatement and having their best two-way forward out makes the task all the more difficult. However, when all's said and done, we'll have a pretty good indication as to the direction this team is headed.


Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan got the axe today with this statement from owner Terry Pegula (who also owns the Sabres):

“I spoke with Rex earlier today and we mutually agreed that the time to part ways is now. These decisions are never easy. I want to take this opportunity to thank Rex for all his efforts and wish him all the best moving forward. Kim and I and our entire Bills organization share in the same disappointment and frustration as our fans, but we remain committed to our goal of bringing a championship to Western New York.”

The list of reasons is long and varied but what stuck out most is the failure of Ryan's defense. He and his brother Rob, who was hired to guide the d through it's complicated workings failed miserably. Forget the overall numbers, when it counted the defense gave up huge chunks of yardage that ultimately lead to Rex Ryan's overall 15-16 record in Buffalo. And worse yet, there were many times where they didn't have the proper personnel and had mix ups where there were too many or not enough players on the field.

Maybe most important is that the team had trouble with something as basic as positioning and tackling. I remember hearing someone say recently that in 2015 the cornerbacks had a great season under Donnie Henderson because he taught things like positioning. New defensive backfield coach Ed Reed was brought in to help the Ryan's teach their complicated system. The d-backs were torched all season long.

While texting with a friend last night we got on the topic of the Sabres woes and I mentioned as I have often that the players on the ice for the Sabres seem preoccupied with where to be on the ice in Bylsma's system instead of playing the game instinctively. He said that hockey in general "seems to be a very over-coached sport at virtually every level and it's frustrating.

"They should be coaching skills and technique not systems."

Seems as if Ryan tried to put the carriage before the horse and he got burned mightily. Maybe Bylsma can learn a lesson from Rex and back off on the X's and O's a bit to allow the natural talent and instincts of his players to come through a bit more. His highly structured system has this team at the bottom of the conference at this juncture and if he can't adapt, he'll be on the same road as Rex.

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