Tuesday, December 13, 2016

No answers

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 12-10-2016

There were a few bright spots for the Buffalo Sabres last night, but they were few and far between. In the end the Sabres had no answer for what the Washington Capitals threw at them. No answer for Washington's speed and tenacity in all three zones. No answer on the penalty kill. No answer for a back-up goalie.

The Sabres will into a three-day hiatus between games with plenty to think about and plenty to work on as a splotchy effort in front of a home crowd where boos could be heard lead to a 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Capitals.

Washington ratcheted up the speed and tenacity last night and after hanging with them through 20 minutes, Buffalo couldn't keep pace. Special teams played a huge role in the loss as Buffalo's powerplay was anything but and their penalty kill is drifting towards life support. The Sabres went 1-5 on the powerplay mustering a measly two shots on goal through the first four before finally breaking through with a goal from Kyle Okposo on the fifth to make the score 2-1. Unlike the game at Washington on Monday where they were constantly around the net, Buffalo didn't get any real net-front presence until that goal with 7:57 left in the third period as both Okposo and Sam Reinhart were parked right on the door step for the rebound.

For as much trouble as the Sabres were having throughout the game to this point, Okposo's goal still left them down by only one. The morgue that was KeyBank Center came to life and the Sabres rode that burst of energy for all of 1:25 before Sabres captain Brian Gionta was whistled for interference. Although Washington's Evgeny Kuznetzov gave an Oscar-worthy performance on the play, the ref felt there was enough to send Gionta to the box. Less than a minute later the Capitals regained their two-goal advantage on their second powerplay goal of the game off the stick of defenseman John Carlson. It was Carlson's first goal since April of last season.

As was the case on Monday, the veteran Capitals team took advantage of the opportunities the Sabres gave them. On their first goal a defensive lapse by Buffalo's Dmitry Kulikov allowed TJ Oshie to waltz to the front of the net and bury a wrister top-shelf from five feet. On Washington's second goal Kuznetzov squeezed by a check from Buffalo's Jake McCabe in the Buffalo zone and from the goal line fed rookie Jakub Vrana who had sneaked past Ryan O'Reilly for the tap-in. And a seemingly confused Buffalo PK unit allowed Carlson plenty of space for his Phil Niekro-type knuckle ball from the slot to sail through a partial screen.

And so it went.

The litany of transgressions for this performance wasn't limited to the players on the ice and may actually begin at the top with the decision to bring in three players off of the injured list. Kulikov was back in the lineup after 13 games on injured reserve. Fellow defenseman Josh Gorges returned after missing three games and forward Nicolas Deslauriers returned after spending 19 games on IR.

Cap considerations could be at the crux of the decision to bring all three back at the same time as the Sabres have been tight against the NHL cap ceiling due to the rash of injuries. For the last month Buffalo has been bringing players up from Rochester for games and sending them back down as quickly as possible trying to save every penny they could against the cap.

Or they could have just wanted to see what the team would be like with nearly a complete lineup and if that's the case, it wasn't a pretty picture. Kulikov had a particularly brutal night. He was on the ice for three of Washington's four goals (including the empty netter) and looked completely out of sorts for stretches. The team speed and skating ability we saw when rookies Brendan Guhle and Eric Burgdoerfer were on the back end dissipated as Kulikov's confusion and Gorges' slower style bogged down the transition game. Deslauriers, who was not having a very good season even before his injury, saw 5:48 of ice-time and was a non-factor.

Having all three of them back in the line up may have been too much of an adjustment for a team that was playing very well during a 5-2-2 stretch.

Yet there were others who had plenty of trouble in this one. Reinhart had a disconnect between his brain and his stick again, McCabe was spastic all night and Zemgus Girgensons is still in his downward spiral trying desperately to gain control. Defenseman Cody Franson had one good hit early in the first but still lacks conviction and Jack Eichel's trying to do too much. Props to O'Reilly in the offensive zone as his line applied tons of pressure but he was also on the ice for three of Washington's four goals.

Not good enough. And that goes for the coaching staff as well.

Assistant coach Bob Woods came on board this summer to replace Dan Lambert who is at the helm in Rochester. Throughout Sabres broadcasts this season we hear analyst Rob Ray mention his talks with Woods and how the coach wants more out of his players from a possession and/or transition perspective, among other things. What coach wouldn't? But when your team is stifled through two powerplays mustering only one shot, adjustments need to be made and that didn't happen last night as evidenced by only two shots on goal through the first four powerplays.

And lest we forget, prior to Eichel returning from injury, the Sabres were averaging a league-low 1.81 goals per game, an output that rivaled the tank years for futility.

That said, head coach Dan Bylsma did shift his system to the defensive side when the team at one point was icing five AHL'ers but with the return of Eichel, as well as the inclusion of Guhle, they kicked it in gear. However, he'll need to adjust again as Eichel is not 100% and Guhle's been sent back to Prince George of the WHL.

And then there's the penalty kill. Assistant Terry Murray needs to find an answer. Should they be passive? Should they be aggressive? Should they be passive-aggressive? Whatever the solution, they need to start figuring it out. The Sabres are at 50% on the kill through the last six games having given up nine goals on 18 opportunities and have given up two powerplay goals in four of the last six. They managed to cheat death and pull out wins the previous three times but against Washington last night it finally got to them.

There aren't many teams that can overcome an inept penalty kill and the Sabres are not one of them.

Answers. That's what we're looking for. It's what will keep the home crowd in their seats for the entire game instead of heading for the exit when the opposition scores three goals.

Answers. It's what a good team has when facing difficult situations.

Answers. It's what coaches provide when the team is struggling.

Last night they had none, but they'll have three days to come up with some before the LA Kings come to town.

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