In practices and meetings heading up to a game against the Buffalo Sabres, it isn't to far-fetched to believe that coaches across the league will have the same talking points on how to play against the Sabres. First and foremost attention must be paid to the Jack Eichel and there needs to be a focus on Jeff Skinner.
With Eichel, disrupt him in the neutral zone so he can't use his speed and do your best to inhibit his shot. If he's on he'll force the issue and he might not be contained. If he's not feeling it he'll try to set-up team mates, in which case do your best to disrupt his passes. If frustrated, Eichel will try to do too much and dangle, which is much more easily defended. When it comes to Skinner get on him and try to keep him away from open ice. There should be concern at times for his linemates, as they could heat up and do some damage, but odds are if you shut down Skinner, the entire line is basically shut down.
Those are the two guys who at any given moment can Buffalo them rolling and like with most (if not all,) teams, when they get rolling, confidence builds and it runs through every player. However, if you can stifle them, and get them doubting themselves, it's a breeze.
Sometimes the Sabres come out strong, other times lame but in either instance there will be opportunities to score on them early as they have a tendency to turn the puck over regardless of their general mood. Those turnovers lead to odd-man rushes and although Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark are good NHL goalies who can turn in a Hall of Fame performance on any given night (like most NHL goalies,) they have their moments almost every game. The duo are bearing a heavy load that gets more burdensome as Buffalo's losses pile up and odds are that it won't take a Hall of Fame shooter to beat them. Just get the puck to the net and anything from a bad bounce (which has happened a lot lately) to a softie may light the lamp.
And that's the key. Lighting the lamp.
The Sabres may come out strong in a game and if a goalie can stifle them with a key save or more, the wind begins to leave their sails. When that happens their confidence erodes, they deviate from themselves and their game-plan and the mistakes begin to happen. Get a goal on them and they begin to crack, Get two on them and it creates a fissure. Go three up and it's a gaping canyon that swallows up their will. Most any deficit will cause them to flounder and take chances making them easy to play against. When trailing in the third period, they usually have spurt of desperation sometime in the frame but normally there's no reason to panic as more often than not it amounts to nothing more than a last gasp before time expires.
Obviously there are other aspects such as dominating special teams, winning key faceoffs and in many instances, physically imparting your will on Buffalo, but generally speaking, this is the way to approach a game against the Buffalo Sabres and most of the time it ends up with the Sabres on the wrong end of the score.
The troubling aspect of this Groundhog Day scenario is that movie has been re-run for over a decade. Contrary to many who believe this is a Terry Pegula thing and it started when he became the owner in 2011, this easy-to-play-against-team wearing the Blue and Gold has had this problem dating back to the 2007-08 season after they lost their leaders in Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. It was never the same after that and a team that was once feared for two post '04/'05 lockout seasons became easy to play against. Buffalo's teams have always had some talented players, save for the two tank seasons (2013-15) and when they were on a roll they had a look of invincibility. However, from Darcy Regier's "core" to this 2019-20 edition of the Sabres, through ownership and front office changes to coaching changes to changes in personnel, when the going gets tough, they inevitably fold.
That's one of the main reasons why they haven't been to the playoffs in eight consecutive seasons and haven't advanced past the first round since the 2007 playoffs.
In Tuesday's 4-1 loss at home tot he Minnesota Wild, the script played out as laid out above. What was good to see was Eichel's response. With his team down 3-0 Eichel took out his frustrations by dropping the gloves with the Wild's Joel Eriksson-Ek, who was shocked at what was transpiring and really wanted no part of a temporarily crazed Eichel. We've never seen an outburst like that from Eichel in his four-plus years as a Sabre. Sure, we've all seen his skill and watched him in "Jack Flash"-mode flying up and down the ice, but we've never seen anger and frustration come to a head like that even though there were dozens and dozens of times it could/should have been on display.
The maturation process of Eichel has been touched on here, most notably and most recently with his four-goal performance in a 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators last weekend, and although the process has been slower than most wanted/expected, it's happening. Eichel, who is the captain of the Sabres, received plaudits for that show of emotion against the Wild and for his leadership in personally trying to spark his team in a completely out-of-character way. "Obviously things haven't been going our way," said Eichel to the gathered media post-game. "I was just trying to spark some energy."
Buffalo's penalty kill backed Eichel and his actions up by killing off the double-minor assessed to him for the incident, but after that, there wasn't much. Until, of course, it was later in the third period with the game mostly out of reach.
Defenseman Brandon Montour had the most damning statements concerning his team's performance against Minnesota in his post-game interview. Montour came over in a trade from the Anaheim Ducks after playing 167 games for Anaheim in a tough Western Conference. Montour played with the likes of Stanley Cup winners Corey Perry, one of the most intense players in the league who's managed 375 goals in 1,003 NHL games, and Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf who at 6'3" 228 lbs. had done his fair share of intimidating while piling up 938 points in 1,006 NHL games. So when Montour says the following, it carries some definitive weight.
"Guys expect it to be easy," said Montour of his team mates. "It's one of those things where this a tough league and you've got to bring it every night. Obviously we're not bringing it. It's a matter of coming into a game and being ready to play."
Montour would then be directed to the Eichel event and the reaction from the team. "He wants to win," said Montour, who scored Buffalo's only goal. "It's frustrating with the team we have right here, and the success we had at the start of the year, with things not going our way right now. But you see the frustration in a guy like [Jack] who is so important to this team, you see the intensity of that and there's no jump on the bench. Someone like that who's so important to the team and [he's] trying to spark the team in any way, we've got to get up on that.
"It's one of those things where you need everybody to change the game right there, and there was no energy, no nothing."
How many times have we seen this before?
The above truisms might lead one to believe that the construct of the team is off with Buffalo leaning too much toward players who lack gumption and intestinal fortitude. That may be the case somewhat, but don't expect general manager Jason Botterill to start bringing in players that lean more towards the grittier side of the equation. In fact, no one in Sabreland should hold their breath that any move will be made in the very near future.
As of now the Sabres are down four forwards and are carrying two extra defenseman but doesn't seem is if Botterill very eager to use his surplus defensemen in a trade for forward help. Botterill had just gotten back from the GM meetings in Toronto, Canada and when facing the media prior to the Minnesota game he didn't give the impression that anything would be happening anytime soon. "It's certainly a situation where we're actively looking to see if we can make our team a little better and find a forward out there to help our group," he told the media. "But we are also happy with how our players have come up from Rochester and played so far."
Botterill acknowledged he's facing a couple of hurdles as he's juggling the cap and cap implications for his team and any potential trade partner as both he and they would need to come to a money-in/money-out trade agreement. "I think it's always difficult," said Botterill of dealing with the NHL's salary cap, "you look in the salary-cap world, other teams having injuries, so it's difficult."
He also said that he "really liked the way we've tried to build up our defense over the last couple of years here" and went on to say that "if we are going to move anyone from there, we've got to make sure it's helping our team out.
Those are disturbing words to many in Sabreland as Buffalo's 2-7-2 slump is giving them visions of last year's collapse where the team went on a franchise-tying 10-game winning streak in November before a death-spiral led to a 27th place overall finish.
To those who might think or believe that's happening, Botterill said that "its something that we have to prove it's not."
"I like the steps we've gone through," he said referring to four games they lost against Eastern Conference powerhouses. "We have to find more of an opportunity to be more consistent throughout the year."
So, for those looking for a trade to shake up the team, it doesn't look like that's happening right now.
With Botterill taking that approach, head coach Ralph Krueger must make do with what he's been given. He dressed 11 forwards and 7 defensemen for the game against the Wild with reserve D-man John Gilmour taking a spot on the fourth line. That didn't work out very well and neither did he get any secondary scoring from the forwards. So he switched things up in practice yesterday. Here were the lines from the practice:
Vesey - Eichel - Reinhart
Skinner - Rodrigues - Sheary (which remained intact)
Olofsson - Mittelstadt - Asplund
Girgensons - Larsson - Lazar
The Sabres will face a Boston Bruins team that's 7-0-4 at home and are on a five-game point-streak.
Mike Babcock was fired as the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
That is all.