By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Was it really less two weeks ago that the Buffalo Sabres were looking forward to their upcoming homestand? Everyone figured that if the Sabres were going to make a little noise to move up on the playoff position-holders, the five-game stretch would be the time to do it. That stretch is now over, and let’s quickly review those five games:
*Not only do the Sabres lose to lowly Ottawa, but goalie Linus Ullmark is lost for a month or so to a lower-body injury.
*Buffalo looks punchless and unspirited in a loss to the Canadiens.
*An even game with the Blue Jackets ends on a happy note on Jack Eichel’s overtime winner.
*Colorado scores, um, an avalanche of goals in blasting the Sabres in Buffalo’s worst home loss of the season.
*Even more lowly Detroit earns just its fifth road win of the season, a 4-3 verdict before an arena with a lot of no-shows – and the weather probably wasn’t the biggest reason why.
It’s a 1-3-1 stretch, including losses to the No. 29 (Ottawa) and No. 31 (Detroit) teams in the overall standings. It ended with just about everyone associated with the Sabres in a grumpy mood over greatly diminished hopes.
Giving them a chance
There wasn’t much energy in the building for long stretches on Thursday night, and that was perfect for a Detroit team that hadn’t won a road game since December 14. You don’t want to give a team like that any life, any reason to think this night would be different than the others, but that’s what the Sabres did in the first period by falling behind by a 2-0 count. The second goal was a big one, as Dylan Larkin scored off a two-on-one break with two-tenths of a second left.
Both teams provided little entertainment value in the second period, leaving the Sabres an uphill task.
“We had our moments in the first and second periods,” Evan Rodrigues said. “We did some right things, but we didn’t do it consistently. We waited too long to turn it on.”
Buffalo finally stepped on the gas in the last 20 minutes of regulation, and goals followed. Jimmy Vesey and Scott Wilson got the game back to even. Then after Detroit regained the lead on the power play, Rodrigues scored with the goalie pulled with 47 seconds to go. That meant the Sabres received a point out of the night, at least.
But overtime proved indecisive, and rookie goalie Jonas Johansson – in his first NHL start – couldn’t stop a shot in the shootout.
“I tried to stay in the moment,” Johansson said. “I like overtime and shootouts. I think that’s a good opportunity for a goalie to win the game for your team. It didn’t happen tonight. I tried to be prepared for anything.”
While the game was decided in the shootout, it probably was lost much earlier in the night.
“(The problem) is a commitment to defense – we’ve gotten away from that,” Rodrigues said. “When we play good D and we’re on top of teams, that’s when we have success. It’s as simple as that. When we do that like we did against Dallas and Nashville – low-scoring games – we have success. You have to buy into winning games by 1-0 and 2-1. We’re in a place right now where we want to win 4-3, 5-4. In order to win, we have to be committed to defense.”
Coach Ralph Krueger added, “The end result says that we didn’t do the things we needed to do to win. If you look at the whole game, they would have deserved a couple of goals. We had an opportunity for much more. Right now, the failed opportunities – not finishing our chances – are coming at critical points. … Things aren’t coming easy right now. That means you have to work that much harder. You have to fight that much harder.”
Call to arms
These are difficult, stressful times for everyone in the Sabres’ organization, with some fans not bothering to come to come to games and others left unhappy by the thought of another playoff-less spring. Krueger understands that, and his reaction to the disappointment of local hockey fans was put quite eloquently under the circumstances.
“I feel that. I live in the middle of Buffalo,” he said. “I love the city, and I love the passion of the people. I go out to eat, I walk the streets and I talk to people, and that’s what I’m seeing. They’re not happy with what we’re doing. But they are supporting us, and they are giving me personally a lot of energy. If they boo during a game when they are unhappy, that’s their right. If we’re not winning, that’s their right. I don’t feel (anger) in the city. They love the Sabres, and they are hungry for this to turn.
“We are fighting and working hard to get the habits here to be a competitive team on a regular basis. And we will continue to fight, and we will continue to work hard, and we’ll get some bodies back in the next few games. We’ll get some energy back, and we will improve.”
It was said with plenty of emotion and sincerity, so it sounded even better than it reads here. We’ll see if that spirit is contagious starting Friday night in New York against the Rangers.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)