Right about now, the Buffalo Sabres are possibly the most popular team in the Eastern Conference of the NHL.
You would be popular, too, if every time you came into town you gave a struggling team a chance to earn a W.
For the second time in two games, the Sabres came out sluggish against a Florida-based team that was in desperate need of a win, and despite the fact that the Sabres actually fought back tonight and managed to take a lead, once again they came up short, suffering a 5-4 loss in a shootout to the Florida Panthers.
Tonight’s game was a story of “one step forward, one step back.” Owners of the NHL’s worst power play, the Sabres managed to capitalize on the man advantage late in the game when Marcus Foligno deflected Christian Ehroff’s shot from the point past Florida goalie Jacob Markstrom. That power play goal gave the Sabres their second lead of the game, and it had to have fans of the blue and gold feeling like maybe tonight was going to go the Sabres’ way . . .
. . . until the oft-penalized Sabres took their sixth penalty of the game, allowing the Panthers’ Jonathan Huberdeau to tie the game up with Florida’s second power play goal of the evening. Special teams are going to have become a focus of this franchise at some point, since the Sabres are the third most penalized team in hockey, yet own the fifth worst penalty kill. In other words, Buffalo is terrible no matter which team on the ice has the man advantage, which is a huge reason why they have come out on the losing end of 13 of the 22 one-goal games they have played so far this season. Now, you would think someone in the Sabres’ organization could do the math, like I did the other day, and come to the conclusion that less penalties + anything resembling a power play at all = this team being in the thick of the playoff hunt. Yeah, well think away! Clearly, no one wearing Sabres apparel has solved this equation yet, so even when the Sabres make progress in one area of their special teams, they botch the other end and come out on the losing end of things.
And speaking of things the Sabres are terrible at: why is it that this team still can’t play with a sense of urgency? You would have thought that after losing to the Tampa Lightning on Tuesday, in a game in which the Sabres only managed to fire 14 shots at a goalie who had failed to finish the last two games he had played, that Buffalo would have come out guns-a-blazing tonight. Instead, they utilized the strategy of “Save your energy for the second period,” and allowed the Panthers to totally dictate the pace of the game for the first twenty minutes. For the life of me I cannot fathom how this team could come out so flat, in a game it needed, yet again. Don’t any of you people like your jobs?!?
At the very least, the Sabres earned a point tonight, which means they gained ground on the New York Rangers and the Carolina Hurricanes, both of whom lost. I know: I’m really reaching for good things to write about now. After last week’s 3-0 record, Sabres fans had to view this swing through the sunshine state as a gift from the heavens: two games against teams struggling to get anything going was just what the doctor ordered for a Sabres team that had managed to climb as high as 10th in the Eastern Conference standings a week ago, right? Uh . . . instead, the Sabres are forced to leave Florida with their tails between their legs, managing to earn only one point out of what many of us had hoped would have been a 3 or 4 point slate of games.
It’s frustrating to have to admit it, but it would appear that the Sabres will be playing for just their pride and their jobs the rest of the season. How else to describe a team that just played two of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference, and lost to both of them? I’m tempted to be angry with GM Darcy Regier for failing to go out and get any help for his team, but the question now becomes, has Regier been the smartest man in the room all along? Even when the Sabres had crept to within two points of eighth place in the conference, did Regier have the character of his team pegged perfectly, understanding that this surge was nothing more of an aberration and that they were just going to revert back to their mediocre ways soon enough?
I can’t tell which thought is more terrifying: thinking about how badly the Sabres are playing, or even considering for a moment that Regier was wise not to try and rent some players in order to salvage the season. Either way, it’s bound to give me nightmares tonight, so I’m going to stop while I’m ahead! I’ll check back in tomorrow to read your thoughts on where the Sabres need to head after yet another devastating loss.