The Buffalo Sabres defeated the Anaheim Ducks Sunday night, 3-1 for their first win of the season.
On one hand, the goose egg in the win column is officially gone; the monkey is off their back. Phil Housley has his first win as a head coach. After being called up from Rochester, Justin Bailey infused energy and speed into the lineup, scoring his first goal of the season on his first shift. The team killed off all four penalties. With a win against the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday, the Sabres would string together consecutive wins.
On the other hand, playing a depleted Anaheim Ducks roster (Ryan Kesler, Ryan Getzlaf, Sami Vatanen, and Hampus Lindholm did not play), the Sabres only just escaped the Honda Center with a win. Bailey now has more goals than Ryan O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo and Rasmus Ristolainen combined. The team remarkably allowed their fifth shorthanded goal of the season. The Sabres will head to Vegas, another team with several key starters out, and try to salvage a .500 record on their four-game Western roadie.
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These are two different takes on the same team. Either the glass is half full or it’s half empty. You’re an apologist or an eternal optimist. It all depends on your point of view. It’s the same old story.
Jeering vs. Cheering
At one end of the rink, trigger-happy Twitter fans have lost their patience. They have watched another slow start that has doomed the team to miss the playoffs for a seventh straight year; it’s been a decade since its last playoff series win. These fans complain bitterly that the overpaid stars are not giving an honest effort. They cast their gaze downward, deciding that Robin Lehner is a head case who allows soft goals.
Down at the other end of the ice, there are the diehards that refuse to succumb to the snark and pessimism, who are hopeful and optimistic. They point out that, only a handful of games into this season with more new faces in the lineup than most years and a new head coach, consistency is hard to come by. Breakaways and odd-man rushes are hanging the goalies out to dry. They see things improving with opportunity just a few practices away.
Numbers Don’t Lie
The facts are the facts. There’s no sugarcoating them. After a week and a half in the 2017-18 season, the Sabres have a 1-4-1 record, ranked 15th (out of 16) in the Eastern Conference. Of twelve points up for grabs, the team has earned three, a .250 points percentage. That’s terrible, and no matter how you look at it, it is play destined for golf come springtime.
Only the Arizona Coyotes (-11) have a worse goal differential than the Sabres (-9). Buffalo has scored only 14 goals in six games this season while giving up 23. Scoring is hard to come by. Evander Kane and Jason Pominville, with four goals apiece, represent more than half of the team’s tallies.
Effort Isn’t There
Right now, there are too many forwards who aren’t giving an honest effort. They’re not punching the clock every shift. They’re not finishing their checks. That’s why they’re not scoring. They’re invisible in the game and on the scoresheet.
Housley’s system is predicated on a five-man rush. It’s based on speed and taking away space from opponents. Creating odd-man rushes is great and makes for exciting hockey when it works. However, it’s not a sustainable way to build a contender. The system will take time to implement and the reality is that it may not be the right fit for this group of players.
It’s up to Housley to adapt his system to his players. In today’s game, too many goals are scored in the dirty areas: from digging pucks out from the corners, from paying the price to stand in front of the net; and from capitalizing on deflections and rebounds. A goal looks the same on the scoresheet no matter how it goes in the net.
“You look at some of the best net-front guys who find a way to get sticks on pucks and redirects and just getting some dirty goals on rebound or a second opportunity. We have to get hungry in that area,” said Housley.
Mistakes will be made. They’re to be expected, but a lack of commitment and effort by players is intolerable.
Related: How the Sabres Make the Playoffs
The Long Road Ahead
There’s a lot of work to do if the Sabres want to be successful. Perhaps the offense will eventually wake up. Maybe the defense will come together, defending and pitching in on the scoresheet. Until then, will you be a fan criticizing them or encouraging them? Or will you be like the typical Buffalo fan, criticizing WHILE encouraging them?
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.”