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.

 

The Morning Skate: Points at a preimum in East race

The Sabres last second screw up on Wednesday could end up being the game the team points to if they miss the playoffs by a point or two. Of course, the same was said about their third period meltdown against Nashville last season and the team managed to battle back from that massive letdown.

The fact is, Buffalo is in a tight predicament as the Washington Capitals continue to win games. Last night was an exception, as Winnipeg managed to pull out a 3-2 regulation victory. The win thrust the Jets a point ahead of Buffalo for the time being, but the sole focus of the season is now on the team occupying eighth.

As of now the Sabres need a win this evening in Florida. It would give them 77 points and temporarily place them one point out of eighth. Buffalo will be playing game number two without Tyler Myers and Nathan Gerbe. Missing their defensive skill was tough on the team against Colorado. On the bright side, The Buffalo News reports that Andrej Sekera will return this evening. Hopefully he can play effective minutes as the defensive corps looked thin without him in the lineup.

Highlighted Matchup

Vanek/Hodgson/Leino. Three players in the spotlight for similar but different reasons. Ville Leino has been roasted for not putting up major numbers this season, although he has been playing very good hockey lately. It is rumored that Thomas Vanek has been battling a shoulder injury and his offense has suffered because of it. Cody Hodgson showed some great offensive skills in his first few games, but no goals or assists has moved him from savior to bust with some of the more rational fans in Buffalo. I like the idea of this line, hopefully they instantly click.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Ryan Miller

FLA: Jose Theodore

Last Meeting

Sabres 2 – Panthers 1 OT, First Niagara Center, 12/9/2011

Double Minors: At long last, a win at home

Friday’s overtime victory certainly wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done. Two points on home ice is what everyone had been asking for. That is exactly what they got.

The Sabres and Panthers were content to let the other team roll through their system for the evening, yielding a low number of shots and fewer scoring chances. The Panthers, who beat Boston 2-0 the night before, didn’t force the issue during regulation. Their only two great chances came from Sabres turnovers. Their only goal came on a five-on-three resulting from a couple of borderline calls.

Buffalo couldn’t have generated more than five chances all night, two were goals. Both came on breakaways. Despite the lack of action, both goals were rink-long beauties.

Brayden McNabb pulled a Pominville on a harmless breakout but the rookie recovered well, took the puck off a Panther and kicked it to Tyler Ennis – all of this without a stick. Ennis connected with Drew Stafford who sent Derek Roy in alone. Jason Pominville’s winner came on a nifty feed from Paul Szczechura and Jordan Leopold.

The action between Roy’s first period tally and Pominville’s winner was certainly lacking. The Sabres did a good job bottling up a fatigued bunch and the Panthers were content with collapsing in zone and protecting the house.

Special teams were practically moot. The Sabres power play was disjointed – no surprise considering the number of skill players missing – they were 0-for-5 and could barely set up in the attacking zone, let alone generate chances. The penalty kill was sound, yielding the five-on-three goal was practically an inevitability given the time on both penalties. Although the special teams arrow pointed to the Panthers at the end of the day, it barely mattered given the way the contest played out.

  • Ryan Miller made 22 saves. Few were difficult tests, but it was a sound home effort. He had two beauties on the Panthers’ best opportunities; a partial breakaway in the first and a rebound chance on a three-on-two in the third. Good effort from your starter.
  • Marc-Andre Gragnani kept digging his grave with the F’N Center faithful. He had a few early gaffes, particularly on the power play, and looked tentative at many points. He had one bad turnover that was rang off the crossbar by Stephen Weiss. Gragnani is looking more like an AHLer than many of Buffalo’s call ups.
  • Paul Szczechura is one of those Matt Ellis-type players. He has some NHL tools, but there are attributes that hold him back. Regardless, he has three points in three games this year. I like what he brings to the table, definitely a serviceable extra forward.
  • Brayden McNabb was described as the best player on the ice for the Sabres by his coach. McNabb’s meteoric rise since his second-last year of junior is exciting. He is developing into a nasty force on the back-end and possesses the skating and puck skills to be a solid two-way threat. He looks like a player cast in the mold of Mike Weber/Robyn Regehr, just with more puck prowess.
  • It is easy to overlook Jordan Leopold, but he is a calming force on the ice. He plays such a simple game defensively and is beyond capable of contributing on the front-end. What a great signing he is turning into.
  • The walking woudned list may get a little longer. Corey Tropp missed most of the game after being labeled in the first period and Jochen Hecht missed the latter portion of the game after blocking a shot.
  • Something needs to be done about the Sabres’ top line. Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville have gone silent with Jochen Hecht as their center. If Lindy Ruff has to put Derek Roy between them, so be it. The top scorers from early in the season need to be shaken from their recent slumber.
  • Sadly the First Niagara Center resembled a library yet again last night. The music levels seemed low – which could have been a result of my seat location – and the choices were quite varied. The new intro video is fantastic, but the continued use of KISS 98.5 music choices is crowd killing. The use of  #Sabretunes is smart, but it needs to stop if it is the source of some of these questionable songs.

Three Stars

1. Jason Pominville

2. Derek Roy

3. Jason Garrison

NHL Links

Game Summary

Event Summary

The Morning Skate: Sabres still searching for solution on home ice

The Sabres seem to be slipping farther and farther into a coma on home ice. They managed to squander a 3-0 lead on Wednesday after taking every bit of momentum from the Flyers over the first 19:58.

Many point to the general lack of mental toughness on the Sabres roster. Although that is a difficult weakness to pinpoint, per say, many recent events point to anything but mental toughness as a major flaw with the roster. How that can be addressed is also a difficult task. A coaching change may yield some positive results, but eventually the same players will fall back to the same practices. While completely blowing up the team is out of the question, some transactions may prove effective.

Without turning a pregame story into a Steigerwaldian rumor-fest, some change is necessary on this roster. They proved that to be true on Wednesday and another loss tonight would push the needle further into the red.

Florida comes in tonight on the second half of a back-to-back set, they are not the same Panthers form years past. The two teams have split the season series thus far, but the Panthers are within striking distance of the top spot in the East. In fact, a win tonight would vault them to first place.

The Sabres, still clawing away in the sixth through ninth party, desperately need a good showing for themselves, the fans and their position in the standings. Buffalo has been lucky not to sink too far despite their inability to string together victories, they need to start a run of their own and it needs to start soon.

Highlighted Matchup

Special teams. Florida has gotten major contributions from Stephen Weiss and Brian Campbell this season. Both were somewhat afterthoughts in recent years, but have come on with increased minutes this season. Kevin Dineen has the Panthers power play clicking and the Sabres will need ot win the special teams battle in order to take two points.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Ryan Miller 13GP 6-6-1, 2.96 GAA, .907 SV%

FLA: Scott Clemmensen 3GP 3-0-0, 2.33 GAA, .916 SV%

Last Game

10/29/2011, First Niagara Center, Sabres 2 – Panthers 3

The Morning Skate: Sabres vs. Panthers

The Buffalo Sabres may still be searching for their first “60-minute” effort at home, but they are no longer searching for their first home win.

Lindy Ruff may have said it best when he said they needed to get a win for the new room and get that out of the way. It is always fun when Ruff shares those candid thoughts. The Sabres will be looking for home win number two this evening against the Florida Panthers.

The Sabres will have played half of their contests against the NHL’s two Florida teams after tonight. After dropping their home-and-home against Tampa Bay, getting two points tonight would give Buffalo an even split in the four games.

Buffalo has started to find a bit of scoring support outside of The Subway Line. Brad Boyes has goals in two-straight and the grind line of Gerbe, Gaustad and Kaleta have become productive in their own right. While Buffalo’s second scoring line of Leino, Roy and Stafford remain in a funk but will prove to be a dangerous compliment to Buffalo’s top line of Vanek, Adam and Pominville.

A lot is being made of the lack of production coming from Leino and his line mates. However, it still seems early to be labeling Leino as a bust and overpaid. He and his line mates likely need a game in which they get a goal or two to get things rolling.

The only evident change in the Panthers’ lineup will likely come between the pipes. Jose Theodore suffered a minor injury and Jacob Markstrom has filled in admirably. Markstrom is a blue-chip prospect who takes up a lot of net. Where Theodore is a smaller, athletic goaltender; Markstrom is a big body who will play a technical game similar to Henrik Lundqvist.

Some fans in Buffalo seem to think there is a goalie controversy brewing, if anything Jhonas Enroth is developing into a 1B goaltender to compliment Ryan Miller. While Enroth’s performance on Thursday was outstanding, it probably doesn’t merit a second-straight start. Suffice it to say, he will certainly see time next week.

Highlighted Matchup

Buffalo penalty kill vs. Florida power play. Florida’s power play has had a solid run to start the season. This is due, in large part, to the numerous new acquisitions they made in the offseason. The Sabres have done a great job killing penalties this season, it is likely the greatest strength of the team at this point. When the Panthers power play has clicked they have succeeded, the Sabres will be tasked with shutting the unit down.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Ryan Miller 7GP, 4-3-0, 2.01 GAA, .933% SV%

FAL: Jacob Markstrom 4GP, 2-2-0, 2.11 GAA, .945 SV%

Last Game BUF leads series 1-0-0

10/20/2011, BankAtlantic Center, Sabres 3 – Panthers 0

 

The Morning Skate: Sabres vs. Panthers

Dale Tallon went on a shopping spree this summer in an effort to get the Florida Panthers over the salary cap floor. He did so by acquiring a number of players that many would place in the “fringe” category.

The Sabres make their first stop in Florida on game three of a four-game road trip. The Sabres have played four of five games away from the First Niagara Center this season and six of the first ten games are played away from home.

After stealing two points from the struggling Canadiens on Tuesday, the Sabres will look to keep pace with Toronto atop the Northeast Division. Ryan Miller was outstanding for all 60 minutes on Tuesday and there is little reason to think he won’t get the start against the Panthers this evening.

Paul Hamilton reported that Mike Weber was seeing time with the top-six in practice while Marc-Andre Gragnani was the extra defenseman. While the potential demotion isn’t a full indictment of Gragnani’s play – he struggled mightily on Friday and Saturday last week – it may also show that Lindy Ruff wants more defensively responsible players on the ice.

With Jochen Hecht still sidelined and Gragnani in the lineup, the Sabres were a top-heavy team with offensive talent. Few players in the current lineup are ones to think defense first. Perhaps Ruff wants the added insurance that a stay-at-home defenseman offers, particularly in the defensive zone.

In addition to “please don’t boo me” Brian Campbell, the Panthers have Sabre-killer Sean Bergenheim and several other key players who wore different uniforms last season. That includes Jose Theodore who will likely get the nod in goal after Jacob Markstrom made his NHL debut earlier in the week.

Don’t think Florida is struggling due to all the new faces. The Panthers hung seven on Tampa Bay two days after topping the Lightning in a shootout. Theodore has been great to start the season and the Sabres will need a better start than they had in Montreal if they hope to escape with two points.

Highlighted Matchup

The young Panthers defense corps vs. Buffalo’s three-pronged attack. The Sabres recent line shuffle has taken a bit of potency out of their attack. Still, the Sabres boast two legitimate scoring lines plus two additional lines that will not struggle to produce. The Panthers have four defensemen under the age of 30, plus Campbell who has had an up and down run since leaving Buffalo. If the Sabres can generate a solid forecheck against these young rearguards it could mean additional scoring chances for most of the night. If Florida can weather the storm – or adjusts their lineup as the Hurricanes did – they will have plenty of success shutting down the Buffalo attack.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Ryan Miller 4GP, 3-1-0, 2.01 GAA, .942 SV%

FLA: Jose Theodore 4GP, 3-1-0, 2.47 GAA, .920 SV%

2010-11 Season Series BUF 2-2-0

12/17/2010, Bank Atlantic Center, Sabres 2 – Panthers 6

12/23/2010, HSBC Arena, Sabres 3 – Panthers 4

2/10/2011, Bank Atlantic Center, Sabres 3 – Panthers 2 OT

3/25/2011, HSBC Arena, Sabres 4 – Panthers 2