A few familiar flaws cropped up in the last three losses for the Sabres as they dropped to 2-3-0 on the season after opening the year with a pair of victories.
Today’s loss to the Capitals came despite opening the scoring and controlling much of the play in the first period. Yet, the Capitals battled back and the Sabres were unable to discover the necessary depth scoring to get over the hump.
It is likely that many fans are panicking over the fact that many of the same issues have yet again hampered the Sabres in a string of losses. Naturally these losses are that much more prevalent with the fact that the shortened season has many focused on getting a quick start and finding security for the playoffs. Depending on how you break things down, this is just five games out of 48. Or you may see this as 10% of the season already behind a team that is looking to return to the playoffs.
Coupling today’s loss with the back-to-back losses at the hands of the Hurricanes paints a picture of a team who not only has struggled to find goal scorers beyond their first line and some up-and-down play from the blue line.
Thursday’s loss to the Hurricanes was probably the worst game played by Buffalo’s defensemen as it would be difficult to say any of their play was anything better than average. Tyler Myers had a particularly rough outing and Robyn Regehr looked slow at times. Andrej Sekera and Jordan Leopold played well enough and Christian Ehrhoff and Alexander Sulzer were both steady but certainly not game changers.
Myers did have a strong bounce back effort on Friday night and played that much better today as he was active offensively and continued to add a physical aspect to his game that was certainly lacking last season. However, Myers does seem to continue to reach and lunge at opponents besides using his size to keep players to the outside before playing them off the puck. He did a particularly good job of that today in a one-on-one situation with Alex Ovechkin in which he used his reach to shut off Ovechkin’s options before putting him into the boards and helping Buffalo to clear the zone. Unfortunately Ovechkin scored on that same powerplay but it was as a result of play at the top of the penalty kill box, not the bottom.
The depth scoring, however, has really been the biggest issue. Tyler Ennis’ first period goal was the first goal of the year in which Thomas Vanek wasn’t on the ice for the Sabres. Marcus Foligno was able to add his name to the scoring list for the Sabres when he made the score 3-2 in the third period. However, it was clear at various points of today’s and Friday’s game that the Sabres were in a difficult position in attempting to find a scoring punch beyond the Vanek-Hodgson-Pominville line that has fueled them offensively thus far.
Vanek’s absence today was obvious, particularly with Nathan Gerbe filling in on the team’s top line. Gerbe wasn’t able to provide the necessary spark and it seemed as if Lindy Ruff was struggling to find the right line combinations for most of the afternoon. Tyler Ennis’ spark seemed to return playing between Steve Ott and Drew Stafford and Mikhail Girgorenko definitely had his best outing as he played almost the entire game between Jochen Hecht and Foligno.
What strikes me after these first five games is that the roster, while improved, is somewhat disjointed. The top line of Vanek-Hodgson-Pominville is probably as close to untouchable as you will find on a Lindy Ruff coached team. Beyond that there does seem to be some question as to who fits where.
With the magic from last season missing, Ruff was wise to break up Foligno-Ennis-Stafford in order to find some more chemistry from his other forwards. This may be the key moving forward as Grigorenko struggled to find ice with Jochen Hecht on his wing. Hecht actually seems to be patient zero in all of this. His addition was wise – especially when you consider the struggles Buffalo’s centers have had defensively – but he doesn’t appear to have a specific spot on the roster as he continues to be used among the top-nine.
Perhaps Ville Leino’s return might fuel more offense from Buffalo’s top-nine but it would also put the onus on Ruff and Darcy Regier to make a decision on Grigorenko or one of the other forwards who would be sent to Rochester (two if Cody McCormick returns).
Personally, I have seen Leino’s absence as one of the reasons that Ruff has struggled to find ice for his 18-year old rookie. The combination of those two with Ott seemed to be something that Ruff was banking on and Leino’s injury has forced him to bump a fourth-line center to the wing. When exactly Leino is expected to return is anyone’s guess. I also don’t see him as the missing link to Buffalo’s scoring woes. Finding additional help below the HPV Line is what will fix those issues – go figure.
Looking at the roster from top-to-bottom, it would seem as if the Sabres are indeed better with Grigorenko in the lineup than back in Quebec. Obviously his six-minute night throws a wrench in the works but clearly the ability to ice two more dangerous lines each night will run through the young center. This includes having players like Ennis, Stafford, Ott and Foligno on the ice nightly, but creating a lineup that will flow even when the HPV Line is cold.
- Grigorenko’s first five games went by without him registering a point. However, he was effective in his own zone and showed great vision on the offensive end too. His best chance came off the stick of Tyler Myers this afternoon only to be thwarted by a particularly impressive save.
- Andrej Sekera managed to follow an incredibly effective Friday with a less a than impressive game today. While he was active at both ends of the ice on Friday, he seemed tentative for mot of the afternoon. He had one particularly soft effort bearing down on Alex Ovechkin at the offensive blueline. Ovechkin’s free break eventually led to Washington’s second goal
- As I noted, I liked Tyler Myers’ game on Friday and today. He was very active on the offensive end and has managed to maintain a physical aspect to his game.
- Ryan Miller’s play has also been quite impressive. Perhaps the only difference between Thursday and Friday and Saturday was that Miller turned aside a number of quality chances whereas the Canes were able beat Jhonas Enroth with regularity.
- Enroth’s play creates a risk that Miller will get that much more time since Ruff has created a culture for avoiding his backup at almost all costs when he loses faith. Enroth didn’t play a strong game by any stretch, but he was hung out to dry for most of the night as well. Either way, the Sabres do need better play from him if they hope to keep Miller fresh for the rest of the year.