Two days after Buffalo Sabres head coach Phil Housley called his team soft, following a 6-2 drubbing at the hands of the New York Rangers, they had a chance to respond on the ice. Many expected – if not hoped – for them to play a passionate, physical game filled with desperation and urgency to start their three-day road trip with a much-need victory against the New Jersey Devils in Prudential Center. It didn’t happen.
Instead, chalk up a bad 4-1 loss for a team that’s slowly dropping further out of playoff contention.
It was a blown opportunity to draw a line in the sand. It was a failed chance to make a statement that this team isn’t content with just being in the postseason hunt. It was another unsuccessful attempt to turn the corner and change the narrative that they indeed belong in the playoffs.
With the loss, the Sabres stood still in the standings with 63 points. They’re now six points behind a trio of teams tied with 69 points–the Pittsburgh Penguins, Montreal Canadiens and Columbus Blue Jackets. The Carolina Hurricanes have 68 points.
Winning the Wrong Stat
Once again, the Sabres won the battle of the shot counter, 35-24, but came up with no points to show for it. Corey Schneider had a relatively easy night with most of the shots coming at him from the point and the perimeter.
Schneider, who has two losses at the hands of the AHL’s Rochester Amerks this season, secured just his second win in 11 starts this season.
“Honestly, it didn’t feel like we got enough to him,” said Sam Reinhart. “I looked up in the third and we did have quite a few shots, but from what I gather it wasn’t too many second or third opportunities around him, so I think we’ve got to focus more on maybe keeping it a little more simple and getting more bodies to the net.”
A Fiery Start for Bogosian
Even before the puck was dropped for the opening faceoff, Sabres’ defenseman Zach Bogosian was raring to go. During the pregame warmup, he nearly dropped his gloves in a Sunday night smackdown with Devils’ fourth-line forward Kurtis Gabriel. The two barked at one another several times at center ice after Gabriel shot a puck down the ice toward the Sabres net, breaking an unwritten code.
More Bogosian in warmups pic.twitter.com/igQPDmkikZ
— Ben Mathewson (Optimistic Sabres Fan) (@Ben_Mathewson) February 17, 2019
Bogosian didn’t like it one iota. He fired a puck toward Gabriel, then later jabbed a two-handed cross-check on him as well as a slash. Former Sabres forward Drew Stafford got between the two and did his best to play peacemaker. Gabriel skated away. “We bumped into each other. Just crossed up skates a little bit,” said Bogosian after the game with a smirk.
A Fiery End for Bogosian
After the loss, a Sabres beat reporter reminded Bogosian that the Sabres are last in the East since Jan. 1, then baited him with a follow-up to the fact, “Is this who you are at this point? Do you even feel you’re in a playoff race?”
Silence filled the air for several seconds as Bogosian gathered himself with more restraint than he offered Gabriel in warmups. The tension was thick as pea soup. Certainly thicker than any net-front presence the Sabres have had on opposing netminders. It was riveting.
After biting his lip, Bogosian answered that he believes the team is still in a playoff race. “We’re confident in each other,” answered Bogosian with razors coming out of his eyes before firing back, “Are you?”
Now, no one doubts Bogosian’s will to win or his ability to lead; however, this season was proclaimed by Jason Botterill and Co. to be all about “actions speaking louder than words” and it’d be nice to see more actions that hearing words.
Will the Sabres Have a Playoff Push?
At this point, playoff talk for the Sabres is beginning to recall flashbacks of ranting NFL coach Jim Mora. The team has won just 11 of 33 games since their ten-game win streak ended. Since Nov. 29, they’re 11-17-5 and of the 11 victories, only eight were in regulation. They haven’t won two consecutive games since the middle of December. And the schedule ahead features games against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, Toronto Maple Leafs. Stacking wins against these teams feels highly unlikely.
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Players and coaches all know the position they’re in. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to bear down and yeah, we need to start putting up more points soon,” said Reinhart. “We’re focused on getting back and getting ready for the Panthers because that’s another chance to put up points.”
“I believe in our group,” offered Housley, clinging to any silver lining he can find. “I believe in these guys. They came back, they responded the right way. They were ready to play. It wasn’t our night. I know that’s disappointing, but we’ve got a big game against Florida. We’re still in this thing, we’re still fighting, and that’s the way we’re going to look at it.”
Sunday night, once again the Sabres were within a goal late into the third period. The problem was, they didn’t appear as though they were fighting–the team lacked fire, urgency and desperation. The very things that Housley mentioned 48 hours earlier.
Unless these characteristics show up quickly, saying ‘it wasn’t our night’ will quickly become ‘it wasn’t our season.’
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”