By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Sometimes the circumstances surrounding the visiting team of a National Hockey League game are more interesting than the home team’s situation.
It could be argued that Wednesday was just such a night at the KeyBank Center.
The Buffalo Sabres and Calgary Flames provided some pre-holiday entertainment for our area, with the Flames taking the 3-2 overtime win. However, the Calgary coach, Bill Peters, was not behind the bench. He’s in the middle of a major mess that’s 10 years in the making.
In 2009-10, Peters was coaching a minor league team in Rockford, Ill., with a roster that included Akim Aliu, who was born in Nigeria. Allegedly, Peters questioned Aliu’s choice of music in the locker room with some phrasing that included the n-word a couple of times. A couple of teammates have confirmed Aliu’s account.
Aliu has said he was afraid to speak up at the time because he was a young player on the roster who didn’t want to hurt his chances of sticking around. There is a certain mentality in sports that “what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room.”
No other similar incidents have come to light since the disclosure. However, ex-Carolina player Michal Jordan said Peters kicked him and punched a teammate in the head when they were all part of the Hurricane roster. Rod Brind’Amour confirmed those details.
Peters has left the team while the Flames conduct an investigation. Calgary certainly has the right to relieve Peters of his duties whenever it wants. The catch might be Peters’ contract, as the Flames normally would be responsible for paying off the remainder of that agreement. It would be an interesting legal argument to prove there was just cause for terminating the deal – even if the incident happened happen 10 years ago.
Peters did send general manager Brad Treliving an apology for his action in the Aliu incident (released to the media on Wednesday night), saying there was no excuse for it. Still, that might not be enough. My guess is that the two sides will reach an agreement on the finances of the rest of the contract, and Peters will move on to other things. He’s probably gotten too radioactive to be useful at this point.
And the interview process for the next Flames coach just got a little longer, with a little more due diligence to be done for candidates.
Back on the ice
As for Wednesday’s game, we’ve seen this sort of contest before. You could argue that we’ve been seeing it for most of the 2010s. But more to the point, we’ve seen it a lot since October 28.
That’s when the Sabres lost to the Coyotes to end an 8-1-1 start. Since then, Buffalo is 3-10-2. The usual progression for a team that had a coaching change and several roster moves over the summer is to start the season poorly and then pick up steam. This Buffalo squad has reversed that process – admittedly, that’s in part to an easy early schedule – but doesn’t seem capable of getting out of this rut.
“Guys are doing their very best, every day,” goalie Linus Ullmark said. “When you don’t get the results, you get frustrated. But we’re keeping our heads high. They are coming to work.
“There have been a lot of changes in coaches the last couple of years, and getting a system down is hard. It takes a lot of hard work. We have to keep believing in our system and playing our game. We have to play unconsciously and not think about where everyone has to be – forecheck, backcheck, whatever.”
Most of the drama for this one came after the first two periods, as the teams each had a goal. Within the first two minutes of the third period, Victor Olofsson put the Sabres ahead with a great shot from the wing. But Buffalo could only hold that margin for a little more than two minutes.
Obviously, a struggling team can’t afford to turn a third-period lead into a loss.
“We’re finding a way to not close out games,” said Jimmy Vesey, who has two goals in two games after going zero for the season before that. “It’s snowballing the way it has gone. We’ve got to find a way to play like we did at the start of the year. When we did that, there was a real good feeling. We have to get back to that.”
Buffalo even had a great power play effort midway through the third, producing plenty of scoring chances. But the puck never went in, making the unit 1 for its last 33.
The rest of the period was relatively even, leading to the randomness of an overtime period. Elias Lindholm came out from behind the net for Calgary and slipped the puck into the net for the game winner.
How do the Sabres get out of this rut? If someone knew, they’d do it, of course. Coach Ralph Krueger thinks some sort of offensive explosion – something like six or seven goals – would let everyone exhale a bit. In the old days, you’d trade a fourth-line player for a fourth-line player just for the sake of changing the look of the roster a bit. But that’s tougher now, with salary cap and contract issues hovering over any transaction.
The only possible solution, then, is to try to clean up the mistakes and change close losses to close wins on a regular basis. It’s not that big of a jump in theory. But no one said it’s an easy leap in a very competitive league – especially for a franchise that hasn’t won for a long time.
“The most important thing when you’re not confident is to really, really work harder at details and things within our control without getting distracted or losing focus of how we need to play,” Krueger said. “Again, when we have so many games coming, we have to give it to them in small doses. It’s really important that we aren’t overloading them.
“We have to have a concentrated group. We have to concentrate on building a defensive foundation, which is getting stronger and stronger. Then we add the offense, and that will be the key.”
In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)