The Buffalo Sabres lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning last night 2-0 in a game where they held the high-scoring Lightning in check for the most part. However, no matter how well you defend, if you do not score a goal, you're not going to win no matter how well you played. Such is the dilemma that has this Sabres team losing two in a row first to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night and against Tampa last night. They did not score a goal in either game, this despite outshooting both teams (MTL, 36-26 and TBL, 34-26.)
What's the dilemma? It's the shots they're taking and the lack of a net front presence either to screen the goaltender or pounce on a rebound. Or even have one deflect off of oneself or the opposition d-man. Both of Tampa's goals last night came from a deflection off of a Buffalo defender who was battling with a Lightning player in front of Sabres goalie Robin Lehner.
After the game Housley addressed the situation. "The bottom line is, we out-chanced a team. We outshot a team, but I just don't think we're making it difficult enough on the goaltender," is how he put it to the gathered media. "We've got to find a way to make it more difficult. We've got to get in the trenches and get a dirty goal. When's the last time we got one of those?"
Unfortunately for Housley it's been a while and it doesn't seem as if he has players who want to do be bothered with the physicality it takes to score a goal like that.
WGR's Paul Hamilton put it this way. "They're not paying the price," said Hamilton post-game. "It might have been the easiest shutout [Andrei] Vasilevsky has ever had. What did he face,  shots? I think he saw them all. I'm pretty sure there wasn't a screen shot all night that he didn't see. If there was there might have been one or two."
The Buffalo Sabres have become a perimeter team. Or maybe they've been that all along and it's really coming to the fore as they've faced three top-notch goalies in the last five games and have scored two goals in those games while getting shut out twice in a row now.
For Sabres fans who've been watching this team for the last decade, this is a very sad case of deja vu.
This is where we stand 10 years after Darcy Regier’s Core took charge post Chris Drury/Daniel Briere and nothing has really changed. The Sabres have forwards who are talented on an individual basis but play a perimeter game and don’t seem to have any passion to their games.
has a defense that leans towards puck-movers who, as a group, are having trouble with the basic premise of puck-moving—passing the puck. They can’t score either. Buffalo
These not bad players, for the most part, we're talking about, but their inability to play the game the right way is yielding bad results both individually and as a team.
Is Jack Eichel a bad player? How about Ryan O’Reilly? Or Kyle Okposo? Jason Pominville?
No, none of them are.
Neither were Derek Roy, Tim Connolly, Thomas Vanek, or…Jason Pominville.
However, just as the former core was a collection of talented, perimeter players, so is this one.
Why did we see fourth-liner Jordan Nolan in the final minutes with the goalie pulled? Not to score, but to add some grit to the group that was out there. Housley, according to Hamilton, had him out their to plant his ass in front of the net. Come hell or highwater, Nolan’s job was to plant himself in the crease and create a screen, or to at least draw the attention of the defense.
Is Nolan a skilled player? Not by any means, but he was willing to pay a price to get the job done.
Nolan’s usage is no different than how former bench boss Lindy Ruff used fourth-liners Adam Mair and Matt Ellis, among others. Ruff had himself a group of perimeter players in the top-six and used players like Mair and Ellis in top-six roles to add sandpaper because none of their skilled players had any.
How many times did we hear Ruff at his post-game presser bemoaning a loss and saying that his guys needed to "play out of character?" Housley is asking the same thing as it might not be in their character to go to the dirty areas of the ice. But what's worse is that this is an easier game now than when Ruff was saddled with this problem.
"I don't think the game is being called as tight as it was," Ruff said back in November, 2010. "Before (post-'04/05 lockout,) as soon as you put a stick on someone, it was a penalty. Now you're getting a free tug at times. You're getting a free paw at times...I think there's games where the whistle has been put away."
Not so today as the refs have even taken to a slap on the stick as a penalty. The players have it much easier today than they did some seven years ago and we won't even get into how difficult it was to play in the clutch and grab 90's or the Billy Smith "whack to the ankles in front of the net" era.
Powderpuff hockey, and this Sabres team can't even muster up the kahunas to deal with that.
Housley can only do so much, although we shouldn't expect more from him as he pretty much played the same way, and GM Jason Botterill seemingly has no intentions of doing anything to shake this team out of it. Botterill seems more intent upon building a winning culture in Rochester and thereby letting this thing burn to the ground this season. Without the coach getting through or the GM shaking things up, it's in the hands of the leadership group and the leaders on this team should be taken to task.
Eichel was once touted as a player who hates to lose. We were lead to believe that he’d chew his leg off to get out of a loser’s trap. He wears and 'A' and is an extremely talented player with speed to burn who's really starting to pick up his two-way game. However, as of late, he looks like a poor-man’s Alexander Ovechkin out there while making some very lazy plays.
Ryan O'Reilly also wears an 'A'. However, as much as he wants to be a leader, he only brings it on the ice half the time. The other half he looks like a higher-paid version of Roy.
Pominville doesn't wear a letter and is the same player today as he was 10 years ago when he did--a steady player who contributes offensively but lacks sandpaper. Why hasn’t he scored a goal in over a month (13 games?) Because he doesn’t go to, nor has ever gone to, the dirty areas where goals are scored. In those 13 games he has two assists and is a minus-5 yet the media continue to flock to him as some kind of veteran leader. They’re asking him the same questions now, and getting the same canned responses, as they did 10 years ago.
Okposo where’s an ‘A’ and is considered a leader on the team, but he’s just snake-bitten right now in the scoring department. Not only that, he missed a month last season and it took him a while to get up to speed this season. Okposo has been doing everything except score lately and it would be surprising to see him finish with these type numbers should he continue to play that way.
It's been hell for Sabres fans watching this as well. From 2007-12 they watched the same thing and became emotionally detached from the players as a whole. Near the end of Regier's "Core-era" they often times booed the team.
It became bad enough that the Sabres went through a scorched-earth rebuild that left little standing.Yet, after two years of “suffering,” three general managers, five head coaches and one VP, the Sabres are back to the same point they were prior to the 2013-15 tank seasons. A soft, fragile team in need of an overhaul. And the worst part about it is that the most anti-core like player, leading scorer Evander Kane, will most likely be gone after this year.
It's deja vu all over again.