A strong season was expected, but this team has sunk low in the Eastern Conference? If that’s the Canadiens’ plight it is even more true for the Sabres, who provide the Habs Tuesday night Bell Centre foe in the first game coming out of the All-Star break.
After adding a number of new faces with owner Terry Pegula opening his wallet, the Sabres have fallen even further out of the playoff hunt than Montreal. They currently sit in 12th, two points behind Canadiens, and hoping a 2-1 shootout victory over the Devils last Tuesday — their final game before the break — was the beginning of something better.
While the Habs have been playing better of late (2-0-1 in their last three, including their powerful performance last Wednesday against Detroit), the win over New Jersey broke a five-game losing streak for Buffalo and was their first win in 13 road games. They haven’t won two straight since Nov. 8-11.
This team has beaten Montreal at the Bell Centre twice this season, but since mid-December they have gotten only 10 of a possible 36 points, with only three victories and three regulation ties.
They’ve scored only just 15 goals in their last 10 games and their goal differential — -30 — is the worst in the Conference and 29th in the NHL (better only than Columbus). Their 119 goals is better only than the Islanders in the East and is 26th in the league. They haven’t been good keeping the puck out of the net either. They are one of only five teams that has allowed three or more goals a game.
Like Montreal, however, this is a team that has underachieved and has enough talent to do some damage down the stretch. How much of that talent will be around much longer is an open question.
As you’d expect, there are cries for replacing both coach Lindy Ruff and GM Darcy Regier, who have run this team longer than any other coach-GM duo currently in the league. But team president Ted Black told The Buffalo News he isn’t considering it. He’s not using injuries as a crutch for the team’s play either, even though they have lost almost as many man games to injury as Montreal. He’s blaming the players, many of whom are having career-worst seasons.
“Our commitment is to winning, not to any particular group of players that are labeled as a core,” he said. So management is clearly thinking “trade” here.
Those having down years include goalie Ryan Miller, who hasn’t played like the Vezina Trophy winner and Olympic MVP of 2010. While he played a strong game against the Devils, he has not been the confident, Vezina Trophy calibre netminder from a couple of seasons ago, with a 3.09 average and a .899 save percentage, very un-Miller-like.
He began the season strong and made 40 saves in beating the Habs in October, the teams’ first meeting of the season. But not long afterward he lost his sharpness and was then run over by Milan Lucic. When he returned after a three-week layoff, he was even less sharp. But he told the media after Monday’s practice he’s identified some things he was doing wrong and hopes he is turning his season around.
Miller’s backup, Jhonas Enroth, who was in goal the last time these teams played on Nov. 14 (a 3-2 shootout win after Montreal had a 2-0 lead) has not been effective and has won only won games since then, not posting a W since Nov. 26th (0-6-2).
On defence, Christian Ehrhoff, who had 50 points and was a plus-19 last season for Vancouver, has only 17 and is a minus-10 — and on pace to be a minus-19. Big Tyler Myers, who had 48 points in his Calder Trophy season two years ago, has only 10 points. Robin Regehr, who hasn’t been a minus player since 2002-03, is minus-13.
In looking at who’s hot and who’s not, apart from Jason Pomminville, the entire forward corps would be listed under who’s not. Tomas Vanek has no points in six games, Derek Roy has none in five, Ville Leino has one point in the 10 games he’s been back after an injury, Drew Stafford has one point in 10 games, Nathan Gerbe has three points in 10 games, antagonist Patrick Kaleta has three points in 16 games…you get the idea.
The Sabres got more bad news last week when centre Jochen Hecht went down with a concussion, his second of the season and third in less than a year. His career could be in jeopardy.
Special teams are truly problematic for Buffalo. While the Sabres power play is quite good at home (seventh in the league at 20.4 percent), on the road it struggles (22nd at 14.3 percent). Similarly, their PK ranks 11th at home (84.8 percent, a shade behind the Habs), but 26th on the road (76.6 percent).
While Hecht is gone, Ruff will be getting some bodies back up front. Tyler Ennis, who has been out of the lineup for two lengthy stretches with a bad ankle, should return and Paul Gausted (upper body) is also possible.
Here’s how the Sabres could line up:
Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville
Nathan Gerbe, Tyler Ennis, Drew Stafford
Patrick Kaleta, Brad Boyes, Ville Leino
Cody McCormick. Luke Adam or Paul Gausted, Matt Ellis
Andrej Sekera, Tyler Myers,
Robin Regehr, Mike Weber
Jordan Leopold, Christian Ehrhoff