The Buffalo Sabres find themselves in the NHL’s basement again. Here’s one reason why.
The Buffalo Sabres suffered their second-consecutive loss in overtime Tuesday evening, falling 5-4 to the Pittsburgh Penguins on the road.
The Sabres scored first against the Penguins, just as they did against the Montreal Canadiens Saturday evening. The similarities don’t stop there, of course: the Sabres enjoyed a lead against the Penguins when the third period started, just as they were ahead of the Canadiens after two periods on Saturday. Two straight games, two straight OT losses, and the Sabres, losers of four of their last five, are right back to being dead-last in the Eastern Conference standings.
It is easy to chalk up Buffalo’s 5-9-4 record to the fact that the team is “not good,” and you won’t find many dissenting voices if that is the claim you make! Still, there are a lot of factors that determine whether a team plays well night in and night out, and not all of those factors get considered by the average fan.
Take for example Buffalo’s -21 goal differential, which is the second-worst in the NHL. On average, the Sabres allow 3.56 goals per game, more than every team except Florida and Arizona. Combine that with Buffalo’s anemic offensive production of 2.44 goals per game, worse than every other team except Montreal and Arizona, and it is incredibly easy to see why the Sabres are headed for yet another lottery draft. When your offense AND your defense suck, you lose. A lot. Period.
But what, specifically, about Buffalo’s defense sucks? Anyone who followed the Sabres last year knows that this team allowed 34.1 shots per game, the worst such mark in the league. It is easy to assume that the Sabres are yet again near the bottom of the NHL in shots allowed . . . but actually the team has shown significant improvement in that area under Phil Housley, allowing just 31.7 shots per game, good for 16th in the NHL.
Naturally, fans would prefer to see lower shots allowed result in lower goals allowed, but the game of hockey is not as simple as that. For starters, neither of Buffalo’s goaltenders are putting up career numbers; Chad Johnson’s .885 save percentage is the lowest of his career (ignoring the save percentage he posted in 2010-2011, since he only played one game that year), while Robin Lehner is currently the proud owner of his lowest save percentage since his rookie season. Allowing less shots doesn’t much matter if neither of your goaltenders are able to perform at a high level.
Of course, the Buffalo Sabres do not exactly make life easier for their goaltenders. Despite allowing fewer shots on goal, the Sabres still allow their opponents to possess the puck for most of the game, which in turn often results in a high number of quality shots on goal. According to Hockey Reference, the Sabres only have six players on their roster with a Fenwick For % rating above 50, meaning those six players are the only ones who can brag that their team was controlling the puck more than the opposition while they were on the ice. Contrast that with a team like the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have 18 players who have skated this season with a Fenwick For % of over 50 – exactly 75% of all players who have logged ice time with the Penguins this season.
Compounding Buffalo’s possession problem? The team struggles to apply meaningful defensive pressure on opposing players. Out of 31 teams, the Sabres rank third-to-last in takeaways, which is defined as occurring when pressure from the defending team results in a defending player gaining possession of the puck. Four Sabres players have created 10 or more takeaways this season; meanwhile, an astounding 18 have created four or less, and eleven players have more giveaways than takeaways on the season so far. It would be one thing if the Sabres could score in buckets, but when you struggle to find the back of the net AND can’t get the puck off your opponents’ sticks?
Draft lottery, here we come!
The Buffalo Sabres are struggling to put pucks in the back of the net, but it is the Sabres’ inability to win puck battles and limit their opponents’ time of possession that is truly killing this team. Even when the Sabres break through and score, as they did in Pittsburgh, they allow other teams to do whatever they want with the puck, and we have all seen the results. Short of resorting to a neutral zone trap in order to try and force opposing teams into risky passes, there is little the Sabres can do to reverse their fortunes as long as they continue to lose the possession battle.