Defense still reeling as Vanek puts the Sabres on his back

Although the Sabres are still searching for answers, they at least escaped Thursday’s game with two points. It wasn’t pretty, but it was still worth two points.

The same flaws that have ailed them to start the year were evident throughout regulation as three of Montreal’s goals came on plays in which the goal scorer was either uncovered or on an odd-man rush. Their fourth came on an extended five-on-three advantage, the only goal scored of a settled offensive zone cycle.

There is no getting around the fact that the Sabres are bad defensively. They allowed four goals for the sixth-straight game and continued to make questionable decisions in their own end. While the first week and a half of the season provided the Sabres with strong efforts from Ryan Miller, he has not been at a level in which they can be comfortable leaving him to fend for himself.

A week ago in Boston, Miller was strong throughout the game and did indeed carry his team to victory despite yielding four goals to the Bruins. Since then he has not played as strong, still allowing four goals in his least three outings and playing well enough but not so stellar that he can hide the glaring defensive shortcomings of the team.

Two perpetuate an obnoxious argument that many fans blessed with high hockey IQ (sarcasm) revert to, Miller has shown he is capable of carrying the team and winning games on his own. There have been flashes and proof of this in Toronto, the final 30 minutes against the Bruins and even the disastrous first period in Montreal last Saturday. Should the Sabres continue to defend like a beer league team, Miller will continue to need to not only make countless saves, but trying saves on quality chances.

Assuming these in-zone struggles continue, Miller will need to be a key factor in wins. You can count on him turning in a few games over the coming stretch in which he will play an incredibly strong game and keep the score to a minimum. The growing issue is that when he’s playing well, not spectacularly, the scores are going to go up. If you actually watch the game and see the chances Buffalo has given up, this is a near certainty.

The same can be said of Jhonas Enroth. While the backup wasn’t horrible against the Senators, he still allowed a quartet of goals and didn’t really have the opportunity to grab a point or two for his team. Yet he was in the same situation as Miller; open chances in the slot, sunning turnovers and uncovered goal scorers. Even Hasek and Roy would be giving up goals in this system.

Luckily Buffalo’s scoring touch hasn’t dwindled. While the HPV Line was the driving force in weeks one and two, the top line has gotten some support in recent games. Tyler Ennis and Steve Ott supplemented another phenomenal night by Thomas Vanek on Thursday.

While the powerplay struggled early on, Vanek was there to score a pair of clutch goals in the comeback after Ott and Ennis provided tallies to keep pace with the first two Canadiens leads. For the most part, the top three lines all produced strong offensive outings in their own right. Although the Sabres are still waiting on Drew Stafford to heat up and Mikhail Grigorenko to start cashing his chances, it would appear that some chemistry is coming together with the players not named Hodgson, Pominville or Vanek.

  • Marcus Folgino has settled in nicely after his first few outings left fans wondering what happened to the player from the last dozen games in 2012. His physical play has been evident and it would appear that he is more than capable of being the dynamic two-way power forward the Sabres have been looking for.
  • Mikhail Grigorenko is creating chances. He isn’t getting much ice time, but he has been making the most of it. He made a great play to create the turnover on Steve Ott’s goal and had three point-blank chances over the rest of the night. Once those start finding the twine I think he will heat up.
  • Speaking of Grigorenko, I can imagine fans will get frustrated because he plays the type of smooth, cerebral game that isn’t very flashy. He glides around the ice – not to be confuses with lazy gliding – and waits for his chances. He has good hockey sense and gets in the right areas. It is a very similar style to Thomas Vanek in many ways. Don’t worry, he is going to be a player.
  • To reiterate a point from earlier; the Sabres are playing a style of hockey in which they need their goaltenders to stand on their head in order to win games. Both Enroth and Miller aren’t playing at a level where that is a wise way to play the game. Confusing last night as a bad outing for Miller, for example, isn’t the same as the actual bad outing he had against the Leafs.
  • Tyler Myers is now Tim Connolly. Every move he makes is vilified. In fact, plays he doesn’t make are now blamed on him. A turnover by Mike Weber brought a chorus of Myers complaints by many in sections 105 and 106. A terrible D-to-D pass by TJ Brennan was also blamed on Myers. The kid has reached a point in which everything that isn’t a goal for the Sabres is a terrible play. Not that fans should be practicing patience at this point, but he certainly isn’t as bad as many are making him out to be. That being said, he was inexplicably low in the zone prior to Montreal’s breakaway in the third period.

Going to the game last night was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had as a Sabres fan. It is one thing to be frustrated and angry at the play of the Sabres. It is ridiculous and downright embarrassing to trot into the arena in your Sabres gear and watch 65 minutes of hockey while you bitch and complain about every player. Every. Single. Player. This wasn’t motivated by just one fan near me, but many. And I’m well aware that there are many fans like this. Every single time Tyler Myers touched the puck he was the worst player ever. Ryan Miller couldn’t make saves. Tyler Ennis is Max Afinogenov (yes, that happened). Shoot the puck despite it being possessed behind the net.  All of the Sabres are awful.

To say that Sabres fans are blessed with hockey IQ is laughable. I’ve never been confronted with such ignorance about the entire sport let alone a team. There’s a reason that arena is so quiet, half the people are waiting to jump down the team’s throat rather than rooting for them. No wonder half of the arena was empty by the shootout. To be fair, the Sabres haven’t been very good lately and this isn’t to be interpreted as a “keep the faith” thought. For those of you out there who act like this, actually watch the game instead of just yelling that each player sucks when they skate by. That, or find a new sport because we don’t need you.

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