The 14th place Buffalo team that hosts the Canadiens on Friday night trails Montreal by two points in the Eastern Conference standings and is coming off perhaps their worst performance of the season. They looked like a completely different team against the Flyers than the club that downed the Habs 3-1 just two and a half weeks ago.
The last time the Canadiens played the Sabres on Jan. 31, Buffalo played a full 60 minutes and were in the early stages of a run that saw them grab 11 of a possible 12 points, their best stretch of the season. On Thursday they played a full 20 minutes, taking a 2-0 lead on goals by their top two scorers, Jason Pomminville and Thomas Vanek — after which they surrendered seven straight goals.
“The collapse brought the phrase ‘rock bottom’ to mind,” wrote John Vogl in The Buffalo News.
Little has gone right for Buffalo lately, now losers of three straight following that good run. Coach Lindy Ruff, who missed three games recently with broken ribs he suffered from a collision in practice, wanted to give Ryan Miller the night off on Thursday and save him for the Canadiens. Miller had played a season high 10 straight games.
But the Flyers came out roaring in the second period and backup Jhonas Enroth only stopped four of seven shots in the first 6:49 of the second giving Philly the lead. That changed Ruff’s plan.
The first was a deflection by Max Talbot of a point shot. The second and third goals were nearly identical, power play tallies in which the Sabres could not contain Wayne Simmonds who — despite taking a puck in the mouth during warmup and being so stitched up he couldn’t speak after the game — stood right in front of Enroth unchecked and batted home rebounds of point shots. The Sabres had no answer for the Flyers net presence.
Those early second period goals forced Ruff to insert Miller, hoping he’d stop the bleeding. It didn’t work, even though Miller didn’t play nearly as bad as the stats would indicate. The former Vezina Trophy winner allowed four goals on 17 shots the rest of the way, but he had no chance on each goal, thanks to awful defending by the Sabres who left Flyers completely alone in endzone coverage or broke down in transition from offense to defence and allowed 2-on-1 breaks.
“That’s about as bad as you can play defensively,” coach Lindy Ruff said afterward.
So the Sabres will try to regroup against the Canadiens on Friday, but like many teams that have fallen out of the playoff race, they are living with trade rumours swirling mightily around them.
First line centre Derek Roy, second line winger Nathan Gerbe, third line centre Paul Gaustad, shutdown defenceman Robin Regehr and even Miller have had their names floating around. If the trade talk hasn’t unsettled this team, their has to be another reason for such a brutal performance on Thursday night.
“It got away from us, and it got away from us big,” defenceman Jordan Leopold said. “I’ve been through plenty of trade deadlines. It’s something that’s completely out of your control as a player. The only thing you can control is how you play.”
They didn’t control much on Thursday. They’ll try to put it back together against the Habs in front of their home fans — who likely won’t be too friendly if things start to go sour again.
Except for Miller, who will almost certainly start in goal, here’s how the Sabres lined up at the start of the Flyers on Thursday. Ex-Flyer Ville Leino, who had been on the third line, started on the first line where Thomas Vanek usually plays, as a courtesy from Ruff since he was back for the first time in his old home rink. No telling how their lineup will look on Friday after the debacle in Philly.
Ville Leino, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville
Nathan Gerbe, Tyler Ennis, Tomas Vanek
Drew Stafford, Paul Gaustad, Patrick Kaleta
Matt Ellis, Brad Boyes, Zach Kassian
Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff
Robyn Regehr, Jordan Leopold
Andrej Sekera, Mike Weber