Sabres’ Downward Spiral Continues

They’re frustrated. They’re embarrassed. And they admit they’re getting run over. Things are getting uglier by the day for the Buffalo Sabres.

After their 3-0 shutout loss to the Colorado Avalanche–a team that’s trying to make a push for the postseason without their injured captain Gabriel Landeskog, the Sabres fell to 30-29-9 overall and 2-8-2 in their last 12 games. It wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was downright brutal.

Avalanche defenseman Nikita Zadorov
The Sabres took one on the chin. Eichel took one to the head. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

Before the game, the Sabres were only mathematically alive for a run-the-table-and-pray-for-help playoff push. It was a laughable thought. Now, it’s a distant memory.

Sabres Lose the Battle and the War

The rink was tilted in the Avs’ favor all night. The Blue and Gold generated a measly nine shots (four scoring chances) in the first 53 and a half minutes of the game. Nine. They had virtually no offensive zone time. In the second period, they failed to register a scoring chance. For the game, they were outshot 43-18. The Avalanche doubled the Sabres in shot attempts 76-38.

Goaltender Carter Hutton stood on his head, keeping the Sabres in a game in which they had no business being in. The Avalanche outshot the Sabres 26-7 after two periods, but were only up 1-0. The goal, Nate MacKinnon’s 35th, was a laser from the circle. Hutton stopped 40 of 42 shots–a sparkling .952 save percentage (SV%).

Carter Hutton
Sabres goaltender Carter Hutton kept his team in the game. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

The Sabres handed Avalanche backup goalie Philipp Grubauer the easiest shutout win of his career. He barely broke a sweat until the final minutes when the Sabres pulled Hutton in favor of an extra attacker. Grubauer, formerly with the Washington Capitals, improved to 5-1-2 against the Sabres, with an impressive 1.15 goals-against average and .957 SV%.

Eichel Absorbs a Hit

In the first period, Sabres captain Jack Eichel took a nasty, late hit from former-Sabre Nikita Zadorov. He was flattened onto the ice and had his helmet ripped off in the process. Casey Nelson watched it all and didn’t do a thing. He didn’t even drop his stick until the scrum had been broken up. It immediately conjured up flashbacks of Paul Gaustad and his hesitation to take on Milan Lucic after Lucic steamrolled goaltender Ryan Miller.

“He hits me after they (bleeping), excuse my language, blow the whistle,” said a disgusted Eichel shaking his head. “That’s… whatever.”

While Nelson was a statue, defenseman Marco Scandella and winger Sam Reinhart darted to Eichel’s defense. Scandella yanked Zadorov and threw him down. Reinhart came in throwing punches wherever he could land them.

“I’m trying to get over there as fast as I can,” said Reinhart. “The whistle clearly goes. Trying to get as many shots in on him as I can at that point.

Jeff Skinner accelerated to the scrum but was intercepted by Avalanche winger Mikko Rantanen. “I really didn’t like the hit,” Skinner said. “Everyone on the ice didn’t like the hit.”

Eichel Delivers a Hit

In the second period, Eichel dropped Avs center Carl Soderberg with a questionable hit to the head. It looked as though Soderberg’s head bounced off Eichel’s back and not his shoulder. While it drew a penalty, there is speculation among some media members that it could warrant a hearing or a phone call from the NHL Department of Player Safety. Now in his fourth season in the NHL, Eichel has yet to have such a hearing in his career.

“I thought [Soderberg] was just reaching. I don’t know. I’d have to look at it, to be honest with you,” said Eichel. “I’m trying to protect myself. It’s a physical game. I think he’s going to deliver a hit to me.

When the dressing doors finally opened to the media after the game, it wasn’t surprising to hear Eichel fired up about his team’s passive reaction–not necessarily from the hit, but from the game in general. He was fuming and had steam coming from his ears.

Eichel Frustrated and Furious

Eichel was visibly ticked off at his team’s performance. “Why is it always the other team doing the hitting and knocking us around? Why can’t we do that?”

It seems like they were taking runs a little bit at times. If I’m going to be at the forefront of it, I might as well push back a little bit. I’ve got to protect myself. – Eichel

The Sabres are a team lacking scoring depth and skill. The team was also called soft by their head coach less than a month ago. They can’t seem to handle the physicality that’s often required to be a contender. Liberties are being taken with their few high-skilled players. While Zach Bogosian will drop the gloves occasionally, Rasmus Ristolainen seems more apt to flip a monster-sized tire in the offseason than a competitor in front of his goaltender during the season.

Where’s the Sabres’ Fight?

How many players on the Sabres strike any kind of fear into their opposition? Who is standing up when the bell tolls? The response is deafening. There’s a dearth of sandpaper players who are tough to play against.

Fighting majors are only one element of showing team toughness. As of Saturday, the Sabres rank tied for 16th-most fighting majors, with 11 this season. Of the 15 team with more fighting majors, 10 are currently headed to the postseason. That’s not a coincidence.

Related: Sabres and Oilers – Another Lost Year

The playoffs make the regular season seem like child’s play. Every check gets finished. Play becomes far more physical. Games like this show how far the Sabres are from being where they need to be.

With playoff aspirations vaporized and the franchise heading to an eighth straight season without postseason action, the answers have been hard to come by. “For sure it’s frustrating, everyone should be frustrated,” said Reinhart. “Everyone should be a little embarrassed at this point.”

The Sabres have 14 games remaining in the season. Despite general manager Jason Botterill stating firmly he has no intentions of replacing head coach Phil Housley during an interview a few weeks ago, patience is wearing thin among fans. This team has fallen and they can’t get up.