Sabres 10 Game Review: Rock Bottom & Redemption?

Posted on March 12, 2010 by Will Eldredge

Lindy RuffFirst off, I’d like to apologize to readers for not having this in sooner.  School has been trucking me with work.  Hooray for midterms.  Anyway, on to the article:

Dates: February 3rd to March 07th

Record: 3-5-2

In Brief:

When we left the Buffalo Sabres, things were not looking good.  They had blown a two goal second period lead to the Pittsburgh Penguins on national television and had strayed even further from the defensively responsible game-plan that

characterized their early season success.  Two days later, they faced Northeast Division rival Ottawa, a Senators team that had won seven straight against the Sabres.  After Buffalo came out strong but failed to score, the Senators jumped out to a two nothing lead, with Jason Spezza beating Miller both times.  The Sabres battled back, as goals from Andrej Sekera and Tim Connolly tied the score at two.  The game looked certain to be heading for overtime, until Daniel Alfredsson banged home a cross-ice pass from Erik Karlsson, then notched an empty net goal to seal Ottawa’s eighth consecutive win over the Sabres.  The Sabres proceeded to produce back to back lackadaisical efforts against the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets to drop their third and fourth straight.

A shootout loss to Boston pushed the losing streak to five, as ex-Sabre Danny Paille scored both of the Bruins goals in a pathetic Buffalo first period.   Buffalo faced Carolina for the second time in four games and the Hurricanes made sure the Sabres’ losing streak would stay alive.  Steve Montador blew a tire in his own zone in overtime and Sergei Samsonov buried the rebound to give the Canes a four three victory.  The Sabres finally snapped the six game skid with a win at home against the Sharks and went into the Olympic break with something to build on.

In Vancouver, Ryan Miller proved why he is considered the favorite for the Veznia Trophy and led the United States to the silver medal, losing only to Canada in the gold medal game.  But when the Sabres went to challenge Canada’s Olympic hero Sidney Crosby at Mellon Arena, Patrick Lalime got the start.  Lalime was solid, only allowing three goals, but the Sabres failed to shed their bad habits over the break and only put two pucks past Brent Johnson.

The trade deadline came and went on March third with minimal changes to the Sabres’ roster.  In came Raffi Torres from Columbus and out went Nathan Paetsch and Clarke MacArthur.  Unfortunately, Torres couldn’t make it to Buffalo in time to make the Sabres’ roster and the Sabres lost their eighth of nine despite Ryan Miller holding the high powered Capitals offense to two goals.

After the loss, coach Lindy Ruff decided to “shuffle the deck” putting Raffi Torres with Jason Pominville and Derek Roy, Tim Connolly with Drew Stafford and Thomas Vanek while banishing Chris Butler to the press-box and returning Steve Montador to the lineup when the Flyers came to town.   Ruff’s changes worked, as the Sabres’ picked their play up and beat the Flyers in overtime three to two.  Their success carried over against the Rangers, and again it took overtime to beat the Blueshirts, two to one at Madison Square Garden.

The Offense:

Anemic at best.  The Sabres didn’t score more than three goals in any of their last ten games and were shut out once against the Blue Jackets.  The line of Jochen Hecht, Tim Connolly and Jason Pominville has come back down to earth, with Pominville and Hecht having five points each in the last ten while Connolly has seven.  Even worse, is that the production of the Connolly line hasn’t been replaced by anyone.  Although Derek Roy has five goals over the stretch, he’s also been a minus player in five games and has only tallied two assists.  Roy and winger Thomas Vanek still haven’t found much chemistry as the Austrian winger only has two goals and six points.  In my last evaluation, I commented on Drew Stafford’s lack of drive, and the winger has only continued to go downhill since.  He tallied two points in Buffalo’s first meeting with the Hurricanes and hasn’t scored a point since.  With Stafford not producing, Ruff has shuffled his spot to both Adam Mair and Patrick Kaleta and both of whom have been more productive with the added ice time.  When Stafford went down with a lower body injury against the Flyers, the Sabres forwards seemed to rise to the task and played with a noticeably greater amount of jam and sandpaper.  When Stafford gets healthy, hopefully Ruff makes him earn back his spot in the lineup instead of continuously gifting the twenty four year old winger top six ice time.

The bottom six has also lost much of its early-season luster.  Mike Grier simply hasn’t been the same player that he was early on, and although his PK work has been impeccable, the puck possession game just hasn’t been there from his line.  Tim Kennedy looks as though he’s hit a rookie wall, with no points, a minus seven and minimal ice time of late.  Paul Gaustad finally looked to regain his form in the shootout loss to the Bruins, but an apparent separated shoulder suffered against the Penguins has shelved the bruising center again.  Bright spots on the energy lines have been Mair and Kaleta, who have both agitated and produced to the best of their abilities.  Matt Ellis has also continued to add a steady forechecking presence to whatever line he’s on.  Hopefully Gaustad can return to the lineup ASAP and allow a struggling Kennedy to regain his composure in the press-box for a few games.

The power play has also been horrible, scoring only once in its last thirty attempts.  Buffalo’s zone entries have been mediocre, and the Sabres have had trouble establishing puck movement when they do manage to gain the blue-line.  Perhaps a deviation from the umbrella strategy the Sabres have employed this season is in order, but at the very least the power play units could use a shakeup.

The Defense:

The Sabres haven’t been setting the world on fire with their defensive play either, as their soft zone coverage and inability to clear the front of the net bit them time and time again over the losing streak.  Tyler Myers and Hank Tallinder were unable to impose themselves as much as they had earlier in the season while the bottom two pairings remained a mess going into the Vancouver Games.  Physical forechecks trapped the Sabres in their own zone for far too long and the Sabres surrendered far too many odd man rushes as well.  Luckily the defense began to pick things up after the layoff. Toni Lydman and Andrej Sekera stepped up in a big way after the Olmpic break and are starting to grow into the role of a secondary shutdown pairing.  Chris Butler was also sent to the press-box in favor of Steve Montador, and although the veteran has not found his early season mojo, Montador has been passable when partnered with Captain Craig Rivet.  Buffalo has been on a two game winning streak since Butler was benched and the team defense has improved of late, with the team allowing three or less goals in all four of their games since NHL play resumed.

In Goal

Before the Olympics, questions about Ryan Miller’s workload arose as the star netminder let in some uncharacteristic soft goals before the break, most notably letting in Jussi Jokinen’s weak, unscreened slap shot to cost the Sabres at least a point against the Hurricanes in a four to three defeat.  The Vancouver Games seemed to put Miller’s head in the right place though, as he hasn’t allowed more than two goals since the break.  Patrick Lalime was also solid but unspectacular in his two starts, a four to zero shutout loss against the Blue Jackets and a three to two defeat to the Penguins the game after the Olympics.  At the very least, the backup has kept himself in the rotation after posting a sub .700 save percentage against the Anaheim Ducks.

Coaching

Some of the failures of the team over the past ten can be attributed to head coach Lindy Ruff.  When Daniel Alfredsson scored the game winner in the Sabres’ first of their past ten, Ruff had decided to put Adam Mair, Matt Ellis and Tim Kennedy on the ice with under two minutes left.  The line got trapped in its own end by the Senators forecheck, and Buffalo fans knew what happened next.  Additionally, Ruff refused to have the Sabres retaliate for Chris Phillips freight training Ryan Miller, or Jarkko Ruutu’s attempted elbow on Jason Pominville.  The Sabres never really put in a solid sixty minute effort until the Philadelphia game and Ruff took heavy criticism for his team’s lack of effort.  In an interview after the loss against the Capitals, Ruff said that it was his own fault that the team wasn’t ready to play, which only further stirred up his critics.  Either way, Lindy needs to be smarter with the lineup and do whatever he can to get the team back to where it was in the beginning of the season.

Overall Grade:

D+

A late surge isn’t enough to rosy up the worst stretch of the season.  Luckily, things are looking up after two character wins against the Flyers and Rangers.

Trending Up:

Andrej Sekera

Toni Lydman

Adam Mair

Sliding Down:

Chris Butler

Tim Kennedy

Clarke MacArthur (Who slid all the way to Atlanta at the deadline.  In the kid’s defense, he was not very well suited for a checking line role, which is what he was playing with Gaustad and Grier)

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