Tonight was another case of “Close but no cigar” for fans of the Buffalo Sabres, as the blue and gold lost to the Philadelphia Flyers by a score of 3-2.
For anyone keeping track of these things, which would be all of you, this was the seventh consecutive game the Sabres have played that has been decided by one lousy goal. The fact that the Sabres have been in each of these games is admirable, certainly. The problem is, their record over the course of these seven games is now 3-4, with this being the Sabres’ fourth loss in a row. After watching tonight’s game, I am reminded as to why the Sabres, despite the fact that they actually have played 16 games decided by just one goal this season, currently sit in last place in their division and second-to-last place in their conference with a record of 9-14-3 and 21 points. Let’s examine the facts:
1. The Sabres only play two periods a night. Early in the season, the Sabres were the worst team in the NHL during the second period. Clearly, they made a concerted effort to play better during the middle frame, but for every improvement the Sabres make this year, it seems a sacrifice in another area must be made. Recently, it is the first period that has become unbearable to watch.
Consider: four shots on goal in the first tonight. Six shots in the first period Thursday against New Jersey. Six shots in the first period Tuesday against Carolina. Four shots on in the first period against the New York Rangers last Sunday. Six shots on goal the first time they played the Devils. That’s five straight games in which they managed less than ten SOG and were outshot in the first period. When you play the Sabres, you know you’re going to get a freebie every time. Good NHL teams don’t do that. Against the Flyers tonight, the Sabres were down 2-0 before they even managed a shot on goal, since their first shot came at the 11:43 mark of the first. Granted, that first shot resulted in a goal by Brian Flynn, and I give the Sabres credit for kicking it up a notch and taking it to the Flyers for most of the second and third periods. Even so, playoff-bound teams play a full 60 minutes, and right now, the Sabres are not.
2. The Sabres have no power play. The Flyers’ Wayne Simmonds was called for a penalty at the 8:24 mark of the first period, resulting in the first of Buffalo’s three power plays tonight. At this point, the Sabres were down just one goal, so this power play could not have come at a better time: get a goal, even the score, quiet the home crowd, and steal momentum back. That is exactly what a good team with a lethal power play would have done. What did the Sabres do? Funny story: not only did they not even manage a shot on goal, but they gave up a short-handed goal to Philadelphia’s Maxime Talbot. Sigh. Another 0h-for-the-power-play night, another one goal loss.
3. The Sabres are too generous. Buffalo had the New York Rangers game in hand . . . until Patrick Kaleta forgot his team was winning and handed the Rangers a 5-on-3 and an arena full of momentum. Buffalo was up 2-nil on the Devils last Thursday. . . until Christian Ehrhoff put one of the Devils in a headlock late in the third, resulting in a PP goal and life for New Jersey. Tonight, the Sabres handed the Flyers six power play opportunities, resulting in Philadelphia’s first and last goals of the game. Are the Sabres guilty of assuming that, just because they cannot score on the power play, that other teams have the same problem, too? They are handing their opponents far too many one- and two- man advantages, especially on the road, where they have been shorthanded an NHL-worst 70 times this season. Buffalo kills off 78.7% of their penalties, which is nowhere good enough to be handing out so many gifts.
4. The Sabres offense relies too much on individual efforts. When I watch highlights from around the NHL, I marvel at the jaw-dropping displays of players such as Evgeni Malkin all the time. However, if you watch the Pittsburgh Penguins, you know damn well that the reason they are going to be so hard to beat come playoff time is because they have numerous players who can create opportunities for the rest of the time. Sidney Crosby had five assists tonight, people. His teammates, Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang, and James Neal each had two assists. They have individuals who can go solo, certainly, but as a team they are also loaded with playmakers. Compare the Sabres to that team. Few goals come easy, and rarely do you see a goal that came about as a result of a series in which the Sabres passed the puck around the offensive zone, getting everyone involved. Steve Ott and Jochen Hecht teamed up to score on a short-handed 2-on-1 situation, but for most of the night the Sabres failed to generate many sustained offensive moments in front of Ilya Bryzgalov. They have scorers, but they are in desperate need of some bona fide playmakers, and some better team chemistry, to boot.
Take a look at Hecht’s goal:
All in all, there’s too many re-occurring patterns that are keeping the Sabres from turning these near-misses into wins and points. They are not playing terrible hockey – you don’t play seven consecutive game decided by a single goal if you are outright terrible – but they are doing too many things night in and night out that are holding them back from winning. Give them this much credit, though: ever since getting embarrassed 4-0 by the New York Islanders, the Sabres have at least played entertaining hockey. I really do appreciate that they have responded to that low point of the season by playing like they give a damn, especially Steve Ott, who is the best thing to happen to the Sabres this year.
That’s it for now, but check back in with me this week as I attempt to outline a game plan that would help the Sabres make a strong push toward that eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot this season. You won’t want to miss it, if only to point out my idiocy!!!