Lackluster play defines another pair of losses

 

At some point the Buffalo Sabres will reach a point in which they’re confident and competent when playing in their own end. Unfortunately it looks like that day may be a ways down the road.

 

Two more ugly defensive games magnified a pair of decent, but not spectacular, efforts from Ryan Miller as the Sabres dropped two more games to Montreal and Florida this past weekend. While the effort in Montreal was simply dreadful, Sunday’s loss to the Panthers was perplexing as the Sabres carried the play and a 3-1 lead prior to the end of the second period.

 

Of course when it rains, it pours and it certainly poured on the Sabres on Sunday. This year’s hallmark has been poor defensive zone coverage and effort and it was evident as the Panthers clawed back to tie the game at three just seconds before the second period ended on Sunday. Brian Campbell’s winning goal was all but inevitable as most of the third period was played in the Buffalo end.

 

In similar fashion to the way the team opened the game on Saturday – one shot in the opening 20 minutes – the Sabres closed Sunday’s game with a relatively listless effort. While they didn’t register a shot until the midway point of the third, they also allowed 13 shots in what was a tie game.

 

In the meantime, the Vanek-Hodgson-Pominville line continues to be the only trio worth their salary as they attempt to carry the Sabres through the dismal stretch of hockey. Vanek’s torrid start was paced by a two-goal, two-assist weekend while Hodgson (1+1) and Pominville (1A) got in on the act Sunday.

 

This 1-5-1 stretch has been magnified by poor efforts in closing games (Toronto and Florida) and generally bad defensive coverage from everyone on the roster not wearing goaltending equipment. The lone win in this stretch was one in which four goals were still conceded despite a fine game from Ryan Miller. The two most recent games weren’t as dazzling of performances by Miller but were defined more by poor efforts from various forwards and defensemen and less by poor goaltending.

 

For example, the two-goal flurry the Canadiens enjoyed in the second period came off a well-placed three-on-two shot (born off a poor Tyler Myers pinch) and an impressive finish from Lars Eller after Alex Glachenyuk walked through a trio of would-be defenders. Both were shots that you would like to see stopped, but are also situations that you don’t need to put your goaltender in front of each and every period.

 

The crowd who likely hates Miller’s recent play is probably growing and there is some justification as to why he could have pulled a few goals from the scoreboard. However, making a save on Parros or Eller would have done little for a team that has hung their goaltender out for 54 shots against in the last five periods he has played.

 

What frightens me at this point is that the Sabres will need a Hasekian effort from Miller each and every night if they even hope to contend. That is, if this style of firewagon, no defense hockey continues. Miller is certainly good enough to steal games. He stole the third period against the Bruins, he shut down the Leafs at ACC, contrary to popular opinion Ryan Miller does win games on his own. However, no goaltender is good enough to steal two points each night. What is unfortunate is that the defensive shortcomings on the Sabres roster are beginning to require just that.

 

  • It is true, Tyler Myers has become a train wreck. He is also entering a zone in which nothing he can do will be enough. There have been times when he has made good decisions and the puck still ends up in the net, but so many fans just see him on the ice. This is similar to what Tim Connolly and Max Afinogenov suffered from late in their careers with the Sabres. Goalies not named Dominik Hasek also suffer from this stigma. For some ultra-intelligent hockey fans, you’re never good enough. Of course, Myers has been bad and when the player who is expected to anchor the blueline is only serving as an anchor, things are going to get bad in a hurry.
  • I’ve liked the fact that Drew Stafford has come out playing physically and has shown a penchant for two-way hockey. However, he’s been a ghost in the offensive zone and that needs to change. He’s just as much of a streak scorer as Thomas Vanek and one or two tallies could get him cooking in a hurry.
  • Mikhail Grgorenko reminds me of Thomas Vanek in a number of ways. He is smooth with and without the puck but isn’t necessarily an electric, up-and-down player. At least not yet. He’s been a little invisible at times these last few games, but I think that could be a product of his line mates more than anything else. I’d like to see him get more time with more skill around him.
  • The “tougher to play against” narrative was going to get old fast and although it is great that John Scott is fighting, there isn’t much need to have him dress in each and every game.
  • Let’s face facts, even a goaltending combination of Hasek and Roy wouldn’t put up very strong numbers the way the Sabres are playing in front of their goalies. One thing to keep in mind for the “Trade Miller” “Miller is overrated crowd” just think of what this team would do with a lesser goaltender in the pipes.
  • Special teams hasn’t been kind to the Sabres as of late, particularly the penalty kill. It seems as if they’re ill-suited at forward to effectively kill penalties and the poor high-zone rotation of the forwards is leading to more chances for the opposing power play. I’m not sure if this is a skill or coaching issue, however.
  • On the faceoff narrative: Yes, faceoffs do matter. They’re important and it is important to have a guy who you can count on to win draws. Winning every single one is not a big deal, however. Losing faceoffs at key times and in key situation is what is hurting the Sabres.

 

Basement Brigade Viewing Party

As Sabres Nation demonstrated over the past few weeks, Western New York is ecstatic to have the game of hockey back full time. Thanks to the end of the lockout, fans get to see their favorite teams and players back in action in a condensed 48-game schedule. While the whirlwind schedule may go quickly, it also allows for plenty of time to watch a lot of hockey.

“The Basement Brigade” is taking advantage of this. Eric of 3rd Man In and Phil of Black & Blue & Gold put their heads together to organize a watch party at Mr. Goodbar on Saturday, February 2 for the Sabres road affair against the Canadiens (event link).

This is a great event to not only bring hockey fans together but to also help inject some life into the bar scene which certainly suffered as a result of the lockout. I’m personally unsure of my availability for the event at this point, but I hope to crawl out of the basement and rub elbows with fans and bloggers alike. Give the Facebook event a once over and come out to Goodbar to support a truly awesome idea from Phil and Eric.

Double Minors: Temporary tie with the Caps after Miller blanks Habs

Ryan Miller continues to dazzle, stopping all 34 shots he faced and picking up his sixth career shutout last night against Montreal.

Miller had to be sharp early for Buffalo before Cody Hodgson officially tossed the monkey from his back, picking up two goals in the victory. Miller stopped 15 shots in the first, including an early breakaway by David Desharnais and 12 more in the third that included a terrific right pad reaction stop. It was a key performance in a key game for Miller.

Buffalo temporarily ties Washington for eighth in the East but still trail due to games played and the ROW tiebreaker. Both teams need to face each other and the Sabres are still in need of taking every point available over the next two weeks.

Team scoring will remain the key to the rest of the playoff run. While the Ennis, Foligno, Stafford (Regulators) have fueled the last few wins, tonight’s win was keyed by Hodgson, Vanek and Tropp’s line. What this may indicate is that the Sabres’ depth scoring is beginning to round out. Getting scoring from more than one line (a season-long issue) has helped push the Sabres close to the playoffs and will get them in if it continues.

  • Travis Turnbull only played six minutes but picked up three hits and won three faceoffs. He didn’t have enough ice time to truly make an impact, but if Pat Kaleta broke his hand/thumb/wrist I would expect to see Turnbull play a bit more over the next few games.
  • Alex Sulzer is going to make reinserting Mike Weber difficult. He is playing such a steady game that there is little reason to plug Weber back in. Granted, I didn’t hate what Weber had done since his rough night against Colorado, he just hasn’t been as good as Sulzer.
  • Hey, Ville Leino had another assist. He also missed a yawning net yet again. I’m okay with that, he has been almost worth the money since January. I love that Ruff is skating him on a line with top six talent, it is exactly where he needs to play.
  • Mike Gilbert had a very interesting comment regarding the First Niagara Center. If I may paraphrase, he basically said it is a much better building than it is being described. He used the two buildings in Florida as a barometer. I still think FNC can be a lot better in terms of volume and there is still ground to gain on some of the best buildings, but it is good to know that there is progress being made.
  • The Sabres only had nine hits on the night. Not sure if that is completely inaccurate or not, but I would have to think they probably made contact with more than nine bodies for the game. Who knows, just spitballing.
  • Everyone can finally leave Cody Hodgson alone. He had a pair of assists on Monday, one fluky goal and one beautiful play last night. Hodgson played some great hockey once he arrived from Vancouver and probably faltered due to the travel, extra ice time and lack of practice. Hodgson has managed to settle in (including the latter portion of that slump) and now suddenly looks like the superstar most fans thought he was supposed to be right away.

Game Summary/Event Summary

The Morning Skate: A chance to draw even in Montreal

Everyone has been all a-Twitter about the help the Sabres have been getting on the out-of-town scoreboard. Tonight offers the opportunity to finally recapture a playoff spot.

The Sabres have had a few separate chances to grab at least a share of a playoff position over the past month, they have yet to cash in one of those opportunities. If you practice the “what if they let Vanek go to Edmonton” train of reason, the Sabres could have crawled to eighth by beating Winnipeg and have two more points (four total) had they won their two recent shootouts.

To offer a more realistic picture, the Sabres haven’t been able to step to the plate when it has been most necessary. one way or the other they have faltered in a key area in their three losses this month. All will be forgotten if they come away from Montreal with a victory tonight. Their offense clicked into place on Monday, they will need to carry that into this evening’s game.

Expect to see Carey Price back in net, he always puts on a great performance against the Sabres. Buffalo peppered Peter Budaj last time the two teams met and you can bet Price will be tougher to beat than Budaj (33 saves) was.

The Sabres will welcome back Tyler Myers, who may need to answer for his hit on Scott Gomez, and may even witness the NHL debut of Travis Turnbull. I’d be surprised if a guy like Brad Staubitz challenges Myers, especially because everyone in Montreal was probably glad to see Gomez get plastered. I’ll also hold out on seeing Turnbull in the lineup. He was an emergency recall and will only play if the mystery injury is serious enough to keep a player out. Which player is injured? That is anyone’s guess.

Highlighted Matchup

Tyler Myers, Andrej Sekera, Mike Weber and Alexander Sulzer. One of these four will not be playing, that decision will come down between Sulzer and Weber. The other two (Myers and Sekera) are recent returnees to the lineup and will be counted on for big minutes. Sekera has been strong since returning from his illness and Myers has had three games to recuperate and watch from the press box. Hopefully he uses the time off similar to his healthy scratch earlier in the year.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Ryan Miller

MTL: Carey Price

Last Meeting

Sabres 3 – Canadiens 2 OT, First Niagara Center, 3/12/2012

Double Minors: Sabres take two after OT gut check

Just 3.5 seconds away from winning a 2-1 game against the Canadiens, the Sabres couldn’t buckle down and David Desharnais scored to tie the game.

It mattered not as Tyler Myers made a great read in overtime to join the rush and pick up the winning goal. Myers would state in his postgame interview that the tying goal may have condemned the Sabres a month or two ago. He followed that by saying the team has come together with more confidence as of late.

Ryan Miller had 26 saves, a number of them key stops (11 in the 3rd) and had some choice words for his teammates as overtime began. Miller toned it down during postgame, but he said the message was to ignore the late goal and get the job done. Miller has often displayed captain tendencies throughout his career and those are the type on intangibles he brings, especially when he is on his game like he has been since January 1.

Myers has been playing good hockey for a while now. His defensive game is still rounding out and he makes some odd decisions, but he is turning into a dominant force as each game goes by. I still think there needs to be a serious guiding force (whether a coach or partner) for him to grow with. Two hits, three shots, a goal and +1 isn’t a terrible stat line, I liked him tonight.

The other Tyler, the smaller one, was once again dazzling. For those who clamored that he was being wasted and could possibly be a bust, I give you Healthy Tyler Ennis vs. Injured Tyler Ennis. He had a few struggles early on and then suffered that ankle injury. It would appear that he wasn’t right until late January. Now Ennis is playing his natural position and is dazzling with his puck skills. Good on Lindy Ruff for getting him back to that position and allowing him to create.

Ennis’ strong play has coupled with Miller’s run and a few other brief renaissances on the roster, has been the catalyst for this unlikely playoff run. Getting continued scoring is the only way this team will make the playoffs, would appear they’re starting to create the necessary chances, now they need to finish.

  • Everyone off the “Cody Hodgson is Awesome” train and jump aboard the “Cody Hodgson is a Bust” bandwagon. But seriously, Hodgson has been struggling a bit and has gotten his Raffi Torres treatment in shipping down to the fourth line. I would say his travel from Vancouver and to arrive with the Sabres probably wore on him. Add the west coast trip to that. Hopefully he can shake the fatigue, get some practice time and work his way back into more ice time.
  • Staying with the deadline acquisitions, Alex Sulzer has been strong filling in for various injured Sabres. However, Sulzer has not been 23:59 (!) good. He has never been that type of player and never will be. He was on for the tying goal, not that it was his fault alone, but that just shouldn’t happen. The final minutes are for your shutdown players.
  • Tyler Ennis has two goal-of-the-year candidates for the Sabres. His stick flip goal against Pittsburgh and his dangle tonight were both terrific. He has great hands and is going to deserve a great payday pretty soon.
  • Ryan Miller was strong again. Not sure he had a look at Erik Cole’s goal nor did he have much of a chance on the tying tally. He made a few strong saves, particularly in the third, and got the Sabres yet another win.
  • I really liked the lines in which Hodgson and Ennis filled as centers for the top six and Derek Roy was playing as the checking center. Of course, Hodgson wasn’t getting the job done and Ruff was forced to shuffle. I still think there is a line combination that can keep Buffalo’s best offensive weapons among the top six.
  • Allow me to play hypocrite for a moment. Ville Leino has proven to be a pretty solid checking center. I still think he will make his money best playing a top-six role, but he is filling in nicely for Paul Gaustad for the time being.
  • Every game is huge for the Sabres, that pretty much goes without saying. This weekend’s games are going to be pivotal. Well, Saturday (Florida) and next Monday (Tampa Bay). Still, both are against playoff competitors and those head-to-head wins are absolutely necessary.

Game Summary/Event Summary

The Morning Skate: Reeling Sabres and Canadiens finally meet in Buffalo

With only 25 games remaining on the schedule the Sabres welcome the Montreal Canadiens for their first visit to First Niagara Center, this season.

After a demoralizing 7-2 loss to Philadelphia last night, the Sabres dim hopes at a playoff berth appear dead. They’re now closer to winning the first pick in the 2012 Draft then they are to playing in the post-season for the third year in a row.

The Sabres are currently 27th in the league and would have a legitimate shot at winning the draft lottery. Depending on your opinion on highly drafted Russians will form your opinion on what the Sabres path should be the rest of the season.

If there is one thing to take away from this game, it is the fact that Ryan Miller and Carey Price always manage to provide a great head-to-head matchup. For whatever reason the two netminders usually have a good outing when facing each other. So if there is nothing else for you to enjoy, try to enjoy that.

Montreal comes in with their own skeletons in the closet. Just as the season has spiraled out of control on the Sabres, the same can be said for the Canadiens. Montreal’s $7m albatross finally scored a goal last week, their coach is being chased out of town for not speaking French and the team can’t seem to piece together many wins.

Tonight’s game – and the final two of the season series – will be played for little more than pride between these two teams. It is certainly a tough pill to swallow, but the next few games will be auditions for trades and come with the potential that the roster may be revamped.

Highlighted Matchup

Paul Gaustad, Brad Boyes, Drew Stafford and Derek Roy. Basically rope just about every available forward into the matchup for tonight. The Sabres are edging very close to sell mode and could potentially clean out a major portion of the roster. The four players listed above have had their names mentioned in different rumors through the year. At this point anyone not named Vanek or Pominville are likely on the chopping block.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Ryan Miller

MTL: Carey Price

Last Meeting

Sabres 3 – Canadiens 1, Bell Centre, 1/31/2012

*No stats for today’s game*

The Morning Skate: Miller out with concussion, Enroth to see extended time

Ryan Miller stoned the Canadiens the last time the two teams met, it will be up to Jhonas Enroth to do the same tonight.

The Buffalo Sabres will play without the services of Ryan Miller this evening against the Montreal Canadiens.

Miller is out with a concussion sustained on the hit he took from Milan Lucic on Saturday night. Whether Lindy Ruff’s goaltending schedule called for Miller to play again this evening is a mystery, but the goaltender was strong until he was taken out due to the injury on Saturday.

The Sabres recalled Drew MacIntyre from the AHL for the time being. It doesn’t appear that there is any sort of timetable for Miller to come back. Based on last season, it should be about a two week process.

Buffalo enters this game in a bit of a flux. They were pushed around Saturday and have been hammered by the media and fans for their inaction following the hit on Miller. Certainly the team will come out with the goal of establishing themselves physically this evening. So long as they don’t go out of their way to run people through the boards, they should be in good shape.

Montreal is currently tied with Boston in the Northeast Division basement. However, both teams have started to click after suffering slow starts. In addition, Carey Price’s career dominance of the Sabres is never something to scoff at.

One thing that is lost in every Sabres loss is the big picture. Buffalo is still 10-6-0 and remain one point behind Toronto for the division lead and three behind Pittsburgh for the best record in the East. This week will be very telling for Buffalo in the standings. Tonight marks game three of a six games in eight night stretch. A strong points percentage on this swing will be key moving forward.

UPDATE: Multiple tweets and news stories indicate that Tyler Myers will be a healthy scratch for the Sabres tonight. Can’t say that is a bad decision, I’m sure Sekera and Gragnani will get their turn up there soon enough.

Highlighted Matchup

Jhonas Enroth. Since goaltending is such an independent position I am not going to include Carey Price here. The Buffalo defense is also an easy target, but the onus is now on Enroth. He faced a similar situation last spring when Miller went down and he answered the bell. This stretch of games – in which he will likely play each night – will do a lot for the fans who have been really pumping his tires and for those who still question if he is really a better option compared to Miller. He will need the support of his team, if the Sabres play as they have in front of Miller the last few outings Enroth is in for a long night.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Jhonas Enroth

MTL: Carey Price

Last Game

10/18/2011, Bell Centre, Sabres 3 – Canadiens 1