Published by hockeybuzz.com, 12-24-2016
That's what it felt like during the final four games before the Christmas break--amidst the wrapping paper and bows strewn about, Sabreland received what amounted to a couple pairs of socks and two lumps of coal. All the Buffalo Sabres could come up with in those four games against teams right around them in the Eastern Conference were two loser points and two losses by a combined 8-2 score.
Momentum was building and expectations were high in the early part of this last stretch before the break and rightfully so as the Sabres were nearly complete, most notably with franchise center Jack Eichel back in the lineup, and the team on a 5-2-1 run. Here's what Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma said coming off of a 6-3 come-from-behind win over the LA Kings in the first of those six games heading into the break:
"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 last Friday. "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."
Unfortunately, it seems as if Bylsma may have been looking down on both Carolina and the Islanders both literally, as in the standings, and figuratively as in looking past supposedly weaker teams. That's never a good scenario. After getting lucky and coming from behind twice to win in overtime in the first matchup against the Islanders they lost at Carolina in the shootout, lost at home to the 'Canes then lost last night in New York for a combined 1-1-2 record. Throw in a shootout loss at the Florida Panthers and that big, six-game stretch of focus netted the team six points and a place at both the bottom of the division and the conference.
Probably more troubling than the six out of 12 points they got while supposedly bearing down and focusing, are the negative trends that came to the fore. The Sabres have come out flat and have given up at least the first goal in seven games straight, they're horrible in the shootout--both skaters and goalies--they play less than a full 60-minute game and save for stretches within a game when they're on the offensive, teams seem to have them figured out.
Last night in Brooklyn against the Islanders was a complete and utter disaster as they once again came out sluggish and gave up the first goal in a 5-1 loss. Whether they were tired, as Byslma implied post-game, or the ice surface was a real hindrance or as some have intimated, Bylsma may have lost the team, they looked mostly disinterested save for a limited stretch of desperation after falling behind 2-0. They came to life later in the second period but gave up a powerplay goal late and headed into the second intermission down 3-0.
From then on you might as well have started packing up the sleigh for the ride back to Buffalo because those in the Blue and Gold looked as if they were already on that ride home.
What we witnessed last night was the Sabres on the road for the second of a back-to-back playing their fifth game in eight nights which is no small feat for any team. Were they tired? Yeah, that was part of the problem, maybe a big part. But last night it didn't look as if they were playing hockey, it was more like they were going through the motions playing the role of "X's" against "O's" on a white board while trying to figure out where to be on the ice instead of skating hard and fast. There was no flow to what they were doing or even what they were trying to do as they labored throughout the game. It's not a fun game to play nor is it a fun game to watch unless you're the opposition.
This is not a slow team yet they're playing a slow game. This is not a team devoid of talent, but with the way the Islanders frustrated them, the Sabres resembled the tank teams of 2013-15 and the manic swing from high expectations to "what the hell was that?!" is maddening right now.
The faithful in Buffalo are losing patience, especially when the probability of the Buffalo Bills having their playoff drought extended to 17 years is highly likely with only two weeks left in the season. Blame is being thrown around beginning at the top with Kim and Terry Pegula, owners of both franchises, and on to Russ Brandon who is the team president of both the Bills and the Sabres. On the hockey side it filters down to GM Tim Murray who has built this team to his specifications and to Bylsma who was hired to coach Murray's team.
Circular debates amongst the fan-base as to who's at fault go on ad infinitum covering each individual player and whether or not what talents they have are coming to the fore as well as who's responsible for them if they're not performing at their best.
I like what WGR's Paul Hamilton said post-game last night when he simply stated that the Sabres' best players have not been their best players as of late. Eichel was doing his best Zemgus Girgensons impersonation last night falling all over the place and is scoreless in his last five games while the team went 1-2-2. Ryan O'Reilly has been invisible for a while with only one assist in the last five games. Rasmus Ristolainen has stood out, but not without having his fair share of blunders. And prior to his three-game points streak, Sam Reinhart had one goal in six games.
When comparing this team to last year's 81-point club, the 2016-17 edition of the Buffalo Sabres is only one point ahead of last year. Through 33 games in 2015-16 the Sabres were 14-16-3 good for 31 points while this year they're 12-13-8. At this point last year they were seventh in the division, 13th in the conference and seven points out of a playoff spot. This year they're last in the division, last in the conference and eight points out of a playoff spot.
Merry Christmas, Sabres fans.
One thing that will fall on deaf ears amongst the Sabres faithful is excuses. Most Buffalo fans gave them a huge mulligan when the team was besieged by injuries in November. They also understood that Eichel, the team's franchise player, also missed the first 21 games of the season.
Bylsma had a lot of good will heading into these last six games and he probably used up most, if not all of it, especially in light of the benching he bestowed upon the player fans suffered two seasons for. His benching of Eichel on the team's first powerplay against Carolina caused a stir in Sabreland especially after the team lost 3-1 at home amidst a chorus of boos after every period. Word has it that it was a minor disciplinary action and that was nothing to get up in arms about. But try telling that to the fans at KeyBank Center who dished out hard-earned money to go to the game or to those of us in blogger world or the mainstream media who were left dumbfounded at the move.
The Sabres play three crucial games against Atlantic Division foes coming out of the break. On Tuesday they head to Detroit to take on the Red Wings and they play a back-to-back home-and-home against The Boston Bruins who are presently eight points ahead of Buffalo having played three more games.
There won't be any speculation as to what might unfold coming from this blogger's fingertips. Being a Buffalo sports fan for as long as I have, day-to-day and week-to-week prognostications prove futile if not completely maddening.
Christmas is tomorrow for those of us in Whoville and my particular focus will remain far away from what could become a Grinch-like Sabres season. During the next two days we'll revisit the individual players and their performance, which won't be all that fun, but for the most part there's work, family, and feasting all of which I'm lucky enough to have. And there will be presents as well including socks, which will neither be surprising nor a disappointment.
Coal on the other hand....