Sabres’ Toughness Still A Problem

S.O.S! These “Same Old Sabres” are still stinking up the joint.

Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin fell backwards to the ice, spinning on his knees, clutching his face with both of his hands. Clearly shaken, he dropped his stick, then his gloves. Blood was dripping from his face, splattering on the ice.

While Dahlin’s concussion is bad news for the struggling Sabres, it’s even worse for their fans. The lack of response to the cheap shot that felled their young rising star is heart wrenching.

Dahlin Concussed, Team Exposed

In the second period, Dahlin, the Sabres future franchise defenseman, entered the offensive zone while being pursued by Tampa Bay Lightning center Yanni Gourde. In the following split second, after Dahlin dished the puck to Jack Eichel, his face welcomed the lunging, forceful elbow of 6-foot-4, 225-pound Lightning blueliner Erik Cernak. Cernak drove up and through Dahlin’s nose.  

Erik Cernak, Tampa Bay Lightning
Cernak will sit for two games. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Jeff Skinner made a momentary plea to an official, signifying he was mystified that a call wasn’t made. The other three Sabres on the ice played on, including team captain Jack Eichel. They claimed they were focused on scoring during the power play and didn’t see the hit.

The Referees Didn’t See It

Though Dahlin had the puck immediately prior to being elbowed, apparently neither of the two referees on the ice saw the blatant elbow. No penalty was called.

While it’s the referees’ job to call penalties, linesmen can report major penalties, game misconducts, abuse of officials, and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. In other words, not one of the four men in stripes called a penalty. It’s unacceptable and yet another black eye for the NHL’s officiating crew.

hockey rule changes
Two referees and two linesmen missed an obvious infraction. (THW Archives)

Many fans are mad that the officials missed the call, but the bigger, more pressing concern for the Sabres should be their lack of response. Be it on the ice at the time, the next shift, or at any point in the remainder of the game, the Sabres did nothing to seek revenge or send a message. They simply folded, barely putting up a fight.

Dahlin’s Teammates

Once the doors opened to the locker room after the game, no one had much to say about the hit. “I haven’t seen it. It looked like he was bleeding, so I don’t know. We were trying to score a goal on the power play,” said Eichel dismissively.

I haven’t seen it? He could have easily asked to see a replay after the second period or after the game. He could have used it to fire up his team. But he didn’t. The silence from the team captain was deafening while his frustration was on full display.

“His” team’s franchise defenseman is on the shelf. “His” team didn’t respond. And he had nothing to say. Where’s the leadership? Why isn’t he throwing down the gauntlet or drawing a line in the sand so his teammates know this won’t be accepted or tolerated?

Jimmy Vesey, who scored his first goal as a Sabre, saw the hit from the bench. “It just looked like a high-stick. I haven’t seen him since, but he was cut open pretty good. I thought it was unfortunate there wasn’t a call.”

“I’m not a ref, man. There was blood on the ice. I didn’t really see it. It’s tough,” said Zach Bogosian avoiding eye contact at all costs.

It was a bad look for a team that looks as soft as ever. It shines a light on a void of character by the team and its captain. Eichel is trying to lead by example – and he’s having a very productive year thus far – but he shouldn’t be the one dropping gloves and throwing haymakers, like he did against Minnesota Wild’s Joel Eriksson Ek earlier in the month. He should be scoring – punishing his opponent with goals, not his fists.

Why Weren’t Heads Rolling?

While the enforcer role is all but eliminated in today’s game, the NHL is still very much an eye-for-an-eye league. Any hard hit is met with retaliation. When your No. 1 overall pick gets decked, someone’s head should roll.

Sabres rookie defenseman Rasmus Dahlin
Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin has had a rough season, punctuated with an elbow to the face Monday night. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

Not one Sabre went after Cernak. There was no response the rest of the game. Their lack of response was telling. It’s been this way for decades. Despite some great talent on the team, very few players stick up for one another. This team is void of character players. Aggressive, physical, get-in-your-face players that play with snarl and that never take a shift off.

From a physicality standpoint, the roster has nary a player on it who legitimately commands respect from any team in the league. There is no grit. Where’s Rob Ray, Larry Playfair and Dave ‘The Hammer’ Schultz? Where’s Jerry Korab, Jim Schoenfeld and Andrew Peters? When was the last time this team had a player like Brad May, Matthew Barnaby or Pat Kaleta?

Jim Schoenfeld #16 of the Buffalo Sabres
Jim Schoenfeld was a tough customer when he played for the Sabres. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

When the Sabres started this season red-hot, winning nine of their first 12 games, the talk was all about playing together and for each other. Coach Ralph Krueger had them playing as a team. It’s now a distant memory.

Cernak Suspended

Late Tuesday night, news came that Cernak earned himself a two-game suspension. As has become all too common with the NHL Department of Player Safety, the punishment hardly fits the crime. While healing, Dahlin will undoubtedly miss at least two games. Cernak will be playing well before Dahlin is back.

Buffalo Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger
Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger chose his words carefully after the game while divulging Dahlin’s concussion. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Jeffrey T. Barnes)

“We’ll let the league deal with the judgment of what happened,” said Ralph Krueger. “Right now, we’re just worried about Rasmus and getting him healthy and hoping it’s not a long-term injury.”

Frustrated Fans

This was yet another seminal moment for a franchise stuck in the NHL’s worst playoff drought. It’s beyond disappointing that no one defended the Sabres 19-year-old blueliner.

The team, and more importantly, its general manager and owner, need to take a long look in the mirror and sort this out. Fans in Buffalo demand better.

It’s nights like these that have driven even the most passionate Sabres fan to become apathetic and disinterested. Fans are even upset with themselves for still being emotionally invested and not walking away entirely. The team in the last decade has gone from irrelevant to embarrassing.

Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill
Sabres GM Jason Botterill has a lot of work ahead of him to turn this team around. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes, File)

After so many troubling playoff-less seasons, patience is thinner than ever. The overly polite and masterful communicator Ralph Krueger won’t be enough to turn around this franchise. It goes above his pay grade; he’s not the scapegoat here. General manager Jason Botterill’s re-vamping of the roster has yet to bring in any character guys. Instead he’s bloated the blue line and re-stocked the team with bottom-six wannabes.

Sabres Toughness

Hits like these will continue. Who on the Sabres will answer the bell the next time?

Whether it’s Vladimir Sobotka being taken out by Nikita Kucherov in Sweden or Dahlin eating an elbow sandwich, there’s a history of the Sabres taking a beating. For years, teams have routinely taken shots at players with little-to-no retribution. General manager Jason Botterill has only made the problem worse.

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The hard, truth is that there’s never a response. If Cernak makes that play on just about any player on another team, he’d pay for it. The cream puff Sabres let it slide, just as they routinely allow their opposition to stand in front of the Sabres’ net with no fear of being hit, slashed or removed.

Pat LaFontaine #16 of the Buffalo Sabres
Players who messed with Pat LaFontaine had to answer to Rob Ray, Brad May and others. (Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images)

The successful Sabres teams of the late 90s stood up for one another and feared no one. Those players refused to get pushed around.

This team will continue to be a punching bag until they do something about it. It’s time for general manager Botterill to make some moves to save his sinking ship, before it’s too late to wave S.O.S!