“We turned it into a very painful, unacceptable finish,” said Buffalo Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger after the game.
While the statement referred to the Sabres third period collapse, allowing three unanswered goals in a 6-3 matinee loss at home to the Vancouver Canucks, it also applies to last season as well as this one.
Both seasons featured promising starts, followed by what can be described at best as mediocre play. The ever chipper and upbeat bench boss struggled to find his usual silver lining.
The Sabres are Free Falling
The Sabres have now lost nine of their last 12 games (3-8-1) and have dug themselves a hole as teams create distance from Buffalo in the standings. They’re nine points behind the third-place red-hot Sheldon Keefe led Toronto Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division. Unlike their side-view mirrors, the playoffs are actually much further away than they appear.
“This is the time of year where you can learn and get those experiences, I guess, but in the end here, we have a tough division,” said defenseman Brandon Montour. “You’ve gotta collect points. It’s one of those things where you obviously need to get as many wins as you can before bye week and if you’re close in the mix there you have to sprint to the end, so every point matters. Mistakes cost you and we have to correct those and fix them.”
“It’s the time of year here where we need points no matter how to win them,” continued Montour. “We need those points. And 2-2 going into the third, we’ve got to bear down and find ways to win those games.”
No Room for Error
The Sabres played decently through two periods, but fell apart in the final 14 minutes. Recently called-up defenseman Lawrence Pilut’s soft coverage let Brock Boeser tally his second of the goal of the game and eventual game-winning goal. A little over a minute later, during a delayed penalty to the Sabres, the Canucks converted on an easy 3-on-1 to basically put the game away.
With marginal high-end talent, whenever the team fails to play within its structure, they quickly get buried. “I think we just lose a little bit of structure and that’s a team we can’t do that against,” said Sam Reinhart.
The Sabres have made strides, but they’re baby strides. While their goal differential at 5-on-5 play has improved and is around even, where it was -31 at the same point last season. They show competitiveness at times, but a loss is still a loss. They’re piling up as is fan frustration.
Breaking Down the Sabres’ Breakdowns
The Sabres fought back twice in this game to even the score. But they crumbled quickly in the third period.
Jake McCabe struggled all game. His poor decision making clearly led to the Canucks third goal, as he failed to clear the zone.
Krueger said he planned to review the game tape and analyze the problems. It’s all he can do. This team continues to lack an identity or consistency. “Those final 14 minutes we really, really need to put a mirror in front of our faces and figure out why we gave up on what is our game. There’s just no sign of it,” said the Sabres coach.
There’s Always Next Season
Despite an MVP-caliber season by team captain Jack Eichel, this team is going nowhere.
Their eight-year playoff drought looks destined to be extended. It appears the most fans can look forward to is the fact that several players will be coming off the roster with expiring contracts. The draft lottery looks like a lock and it’s not even February.
Since Lindy Ruff was dismissed in 2013, this team has gone through a coaching merry-go-round: Ron Rolston, Ted Nolan, Dan Bylsma, Phil Housley and now Krueger. The general manager role has also seen Darcy Regier, Tim Murray and now, Jason Botterill. The results, or lack of them, are the only constant for this franchise, celebrating its 50th year.
To borrow a phrase from Krueger, it’s unacceptable.
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.”