After a brief but giddy reign as the NHL's hottest team, the Buffalo Sabres found themselves in a slump last week, and accusing fingers were being pointed at the club's defensemen. The indicted, four youthful bruisers named Jim Schoenfeld, Jerry Korab, Jocelyn Guevremont and Bill Hajt, were surprised that anybody even recognized them. It was not that they are hard to miss; they are the league's biggest defense corps, each at least 6'2" and 200 pounds. Yet as Korab observed, "Everybody took us for granted when we were playing well."
The Sabres had skated off to one of the best starts in NHL history, winning their first eight games and 16 of 20. They were beating everybody by the average score of about 5-2, leading the league in both goals scored and fewest yielded. It being a sports axiom that having the fives is more exciting than having the twos, everybody got all worked up over the explosive Buffalo offense, especially over the French Connection, that swift-skating line of Center Gilbert Perreault and Wingers Richard Martin and René Robert. When the Connection rested, there was always somebody, usually 21-year-old Forward Danny Gare, a 5'9" second-year man who was merely leading the NHL in goals scored, to step in.
The defensemen, meanwhile, were experiencing a sense of shared neglect. Bobby Orr aside, defensemen are not glamorous creatures, being less concerned with scoring than with protecting their own goaltender and whisking the puck away from his doorstep. Since the French Connection is not renowned for vigorous backchecking and because Goalies Gerry Desjardins and Roger Crozier have oftentimes been shaky, these workaday defensive tasks are especially important to the Sabres. Last year the Buffalo defensemen discharged their duties admirably, contributing to a surprisingly strong showing by the young team that ended with a six-game loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup finals.
And the Buffalo Four started off this season even more strongly. Schoenfeld, the Sabres' 23-year-old captain, was forever sprawling in the path of enemy shots, a brooding, redhaired study in human sacrifice. The fiercely mustachioed Korab, 27, playing on the same shift with Schoenfeld, squished rivals against the boards with sufficient abandon to justify his nickname of "King Kong." Guevremont and Hajt, both 24 and teamed on another shift, worked more quietly, Guevremont excelling in firing the puck out of the Sabre zone, Hajt in subtleties of the defenseman's art, like lightning-fast poke checks and the proficient use of the elbows.
For all their efforts, the Buffalo Four's customary reward was to sit unattended in the Sabre locker room after a game while sportswriters and assorted well-wishers swarmed around the forwards who had poured in the goals. A case in point was the big 5-1 win over Montreal last month in Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium. In that game the fired-up Canadiens, off to their strongest start in years, jumped to a 1-0 lead, only to have the starch taken out of them by Schoenfeld's and Korab's determined checking. But Gare and Perreault had scored two goals apiece, and they were the ones everybody wanted to talk to. As the reporters streamed into the dressing room the defensemen made a ceremony of directing traffic, saying, "You'll find the forwards back there."
But their relative anonymity, annoying though the defensemen found it, was certainly better than what followed. The Sabres' difficulties began two weeks ago on a West Coast trip, and before anybody knew it the team had won just two of the next seven games. There were a couple of ties in that span and, thanks to their earlier blitz, the Sabre record remained a satisfying 17-5-3, leaving them still securely ahead of Boston in the Adams Division. And there seemed little seriously wrong. A quick diagnosis pointed to the French Connection, which was suffering a mild drought with only one goal in four games. That prompted Coach Floyd Smith to break up the line for one game, "just for a little change." Reunited, the Connection scored three goals in two games, swelling its season's haul to 40 and maintaining good position to duplicate last year's almost indecent 131. Meanwhile, the cherub-faced Gare, scoring goals here and there, had raised his league-leading total to 20. "I feel a little funny up there with guys like LaFleur and Dionne," he confessed.
That left the Sabres' low-profile defense responsible for the team's malaise. The first sign of trouble was an 8-3 drubbing by the Kings in Los Angeles. Even more embarrassing was what happened when the Sabres arrived in Landover, Md. last Wednesday night to play the Washington Capitals, whose name is usually prefaced by the word "lowly." Buffalo fired shots from all over the ice, only to have Washington rookie Goalie Bernie Wolfe repel them as though he were Bernie Parent. Meanwhile, Wolfe's teammates, not usually inclined to take such liberties, were slipping past Sabre defensemen for breakaways. It took a last-period goal by Korab to salvage a 4-4 tie.
Suddenly, it was Buffalo's defense, not the French Connection, that was in the limelight. "I was one of the stars of the game all right—for Washington," grumbled Schoenfeld. Noting that the Sabres were to play the New York Rangers the next night in Buffalo, their first home game in 11 days, Hajt said, "Tonight was a defenseman's nightmare. It'll be good to get back to our Own rink."
But the Ranger game yielded only another tie, a wide-open 6-6 standoff that featured everything but defense. Both starting goalies had to be removed during that game, Buffalo's Crozier with the flu, New York's Dune Wilson with an appendicitis attack that required surgery the next morning. Phil Esposito, more or less recovered from a sprained ankle suffered after his trade from Boston (SI, Nov. 24), scored two goals, giving him seven in eight appearances as a Ranger. The Buffalo Four? They had trouble all night getting the puck out of their end, their best pass by far occurring after the game, when Schoenfeld flung a shampoo bottle the length of the dressing room to Korab.
As the Sabre defensemen continued to struggle, their sins were clear enough. They were straying from the goal to battle for loose pucks in the corners, a risky business best left to forwards, and they were allowing themselves to be caught far up ice. Buffalo General Manager Punch Imlach, who built the five-year-old expansion club into a powerhouse, complained, "The defensemen are trying to be damn forwards. We've got forwards, guys who can score. That's the trouble, when you're a freewheeling team, it's contagious. Everybody wants to get into the act."
The fact that the Sabres are freewheeling is entirely Imlach's doing. A brusque, irreverent sort who covers his bald pate with one of his two dozen beaver hats, Imlach once selected an imaginary Japanese player named Taro Tsujimoto in the 11th round of the NHL draft, and went so far as to assign his phantom pick a locker. As for his first-round choices, these were used in the early years for the flashy likes of Perreault and Martin. Imlach pretty much shunned purely defensive prospects, reasoning, "We have to sell the team to new fans, and a dull defensive game isn't going to do it."
Only when the Sabres were safely on their high-scoring way did Imlach turn his attention to defense. The present crew arrived over a three-year period: Hajt and Schoenfeld through the draft, Korab and Guevremont in trades. Schoenfeld has been the team's leader almost from the start of his tenure, hollering out advice to the other Sabres, even from the penalty box, which he regularly inhabits. He also is a folk-rock singer of local reputation but distinguishes between the two albums he has cut by forth-rightly cautioning, "Get the newest one. The first is awful."
Imlach insisted the other day that, problems of the moment notwithstanding, Buffalo's defensemen were "close to the best, if not the best, in the league." Then last weekend the Sabres split with the New York Islanders on successive nights. On Saturday Buffalo extended its mastery over the New York team to 17 straight in a 4-2 game played at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum. The victory came despite the fact that the home team had peppered Sabre Goalie Desjardins with a club-record 53 shots. Then, back home the following night, Desjardins' once-faithful defensemen were again no more in evidence than Taro Tsujimoto as Buffalo was shut out for the second time in two weeks, 3-0.
Nevertheless, Jerry Korab predicted that both the Sabres' and the Buffalo Four's slumps were temporary aberrations, soon to be ended. "We can't get down on ourselves," King Kong said. "If we keep on trying, we'll be playing well again." If this means directing traffic again in the dressing room, Korab and the other defensemen are no longer likely to mind.