BUFFALO – The Buffalo Sabres have done their bit for the NHL and now that they’ve shaken off the jet lag from their two-game set in Sweden, they now have to do their part on several fronts to ensure the Disaster of 2018 doesn’t become the Debacle of 2019. And as is the case in the NHL, none of it is going to come easily.
Just over two weeks ago, the Sabres were the top team in the NHL with an 8-1-1 record. Since then, including their two losses to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Sweden, they’re 1-5-1 and an offense that was scoring at a clip of better than four goals a game in October has dried up in November, scoring only 1.7 goals per game in the past seven. As a result, they’ve dropped 18 spots in the overall NHL standings, four spots in the Atlantic Division and out of the playoffs.
Sound familiar? About a year ago at this time, the Sabres had won 10 straight games – seven of them coming in overtime or shootouts – and sat No. 1 overall in the NHL standings at American Thanksgiving. It wasn’t long before they frittered all of that away en route to failing to make the playoffs for the eighth straight season.
Starting Thursday night, the Sabres have a run of three games in four nights, 10 games in 17 days and 21 before Christmas in an effort to catch up on the action they missed when they went to Sweden. In order to avoid a repeat of last season, the coaches and players have to find a way to be better. And Sabres GM Jason Botterill, who suddenly has an overabundance of NHL defensemen on his hands, must find a way to cash one of those chips to find a top-nine forward to help his struggling offense.
Nobody is suggesting this season will be a repeat of 2018-19, but things are getting concerning for this team. When the Sabres went into the tank last season, it was basically because their secondary scoring dried up and left almost all the offensive heavy lifting to Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. Things are eerily similar through this last stretch. But the one difference is the Sabres are coached by Ralph Krueger, the eternal optimist who is constantly solution focused.
“I’m the new head coach here and (last season) doesn’t interest me at all,” Kruger said. “What does interest me is we’re building a new story here and this is a completely different season with a different group of guys and a huge buy-in and a healthy base of confidence. And I don’t feel anything but that. What are we doing now and how are we building our story this year? What happened last year is not really relevant to our story.”
It might not be to Krueger, but it is to a lot of people who have watched this team stumble through the past eight seasons. Even through the great start, the Sabres were playing home games with more than 3,000 empty seats. Now that the team has taken a dip after that start, it could be even more difficult to convince the faithful to believe in this team. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs – in no particular order at the moment – are the cream of the division. The Florida Panthers have avoided their perennial terrible start and don’t look now, but they have only four losses in regulation this season. On Tuesday night, they went into the third period down 4-0 to the Bruins, but scored four times in the final 20 minutes and won the game in a shootout. That’s the kind of explosive scoring the Sabres need these days, and they need it from someone not named Eichel or Reinhart.
To that end, the Sabres are going to get to the point where they have more NHL defensemen than they have available spots. With Zach Bogosian participating in his first full practice of the season after off-season hip surgery and Marco Scandella returning from injury, the Sabres had nine defenseman participating in practice Wednesday.
“It was definitely chaotic,” said Bogosian, who is still probably a couple of weeks away from being game-ready. “There were a lot of bodies out there.”
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