By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
This is the fourth straight season I’ve been paying close attention to the fate of the Buffalo Sabres, having covered virtually all of their home games in one form or another. No matter if I’ve been in the KeyBank Center or at home watching games on television and interviews on Zoom, there’s been a constant: poor hockey.
I’m not going to add up the depressing won-loss numbers for that span, but it has been suggested that I should be nominated for the Bill Masterton Trophy for dedication to hockey after watching so many bad games by the Sabres. Seasons have followed a familiar pattern for much of the current playoff drought, which is approaching a decade. Sometimes there has been a flurry of good play that provides everyone a little hope for the future, and then those hopes get smashed – leaving all concerned in a grumpy mood.
You can point to certain players and coaches over the years as parts of the problem, and they are. Even so, it strikes me that something bigger also is at work here: the weight of history.
The Sabres were remarkably consistent for most of their existence. They’ve had a couple of flat spots, including a bankruptcy, but overall it was a consistently good – if not great – team. But all of a sudden, the situation changed. The Sabres began to spiral downward in 2013-14, and the response was to undergo a major rebuilding program. The key moment in hindsight might have been the trade of Ryan Miller on Feb. 28, 2014; it was a sign that the team wasn’t interested in playing decent hockey for the time being. That’s rather extraordinary for a franchise that had a good tradition built up over the preceding 44 years. Pat LaFontaine acted like he knew what was coming next; he resigned from the team’s front office a day later. “The Tank” continued from there.
Now, seven years after Miller’s departure, the Sabres are on a course to have their worst season ever. They exited Monday’s humiliating 6-0 loss to Washington with a .296 winning percentage. That’s below the 2013-14 and 2014-15 teams’ records (.317 and .329), which weren’t even trying to win in some ways.
Buffalo has hit an absolute perfect storm of adversity lately, some of which has been out of its control. The Covid-19 forced break caused the team to be at a physical disadvantage for a while, which is an important factor considered the schedule following the layoff was loaded with quality opponents. Injuries happen to all teams, but no team loses its best skater and top goaltender without suffering for it. In other words, a slump was inevitable. New Jersey has faced a similar situation, with a long break and a tough schedule, and has gone 2-10-2 in its last 14 games.
But I’d argue that there’s more than that here for Buffalo. The franchise hasn’t been losing for merely a month; it has been losing for seven years. That’s a lot of pressure building up on everyone with no release, and the team has had too many nights lately where the burdens of the past and present seem to have crushed everyone’s spirits. The lifeless exhibition on Monday night wasn’t just the latest example of that – it was the worst.
You could probably say the Sabres might have caught a break in one sense in that fans haven’t been allowed in the building. The booing might have reached record levels Monday night. But the players only need to look at social media accounts to discover how angry everyone is — at least the ones who still care enough to be furious. In the meantime, it’s the media’s job to be the caretaker of franchise history. Reporters – even while kept at a distance via Zoom calls – are the ones who remind everyone about how historically bad this particular team is, and ask what will be done to fix things. There’s no blame to assign there, because it’s their job to provide context.
But even though this Sabre team has almost nothing to do with the 2014 edition, this epic run of poor hockey comes up in conversations with members of the Sabres organization along the way. That’s a pretty big piano to carry on a back while skating. And with each loss this season, the outside criticism reaches a higher, louder pitch.
When will it all end? Local history can supply some insight. The Bills went from 2000 to 2016 without reaching the postseason. Finally in 2017, the team reached the playoffs based on a combination of a better roster, a weak schedule and a run of good fortune (hello, Andy Dalton). Since shedding their past, the Bills have been able to play up to their potential.
It will take a group of strong-willed people on and off the ice to bury the past seven years and get on to the business of being competitive again. No one, though, can predict when enough of them will arrive in one form or another to make that happen.
Returning to Monday night, let’s provide a little perspective on this one … since that is my job. The Sabres are now 0-9-2 in their last 11 games, and 2-14-2 in the last 18. They have been shut out in their last two games, which raises the season total to six. It was two on February 25. Monday’s blanking was applied by Washington goalie Vitek Vanecek, who had 23 saves in picking up his first career shutout in the NHL.
Buffalo hasn’t been shut out in such a one-sided game since 2015, when the Minnesota Wild won a 7-0 decision here. The Capitals’ coach, Peter Laviolette, did the equivalent of clearing the bench when he started a power play in the third period with his fourth line.
One other oddity to mention in all this – entering the game, the Sabres had a 1-0 record in games decided by more than three goals this season. Usually, bad teams are horrible in blowouts because you are doing them a favor by letting them hang around for most of the game. Buffalo had reversed that theory … until Monday.
“This is not an easy situation,” a somewhat shell-shocked Kyle Okposo said after the game. “Guys care. But it’s not happening right now. We’re in a tough spot here. Guys are trying but it’s just not working.”
If you had to pick the biggest problem of the moment, it’s that the offense has lost its confidence. The Sabres have scored a total of 14 goals in their last 10 games, and sometimes looked downright amateurish in its attempts to break out of this slump.
“Absolutely unacceptable,” said coach Ralph Krueger about the team’s offensive performance. “For all the opportunities we had early on, we were too complicated. We need to simplify. I thought it improved in the second and third periods. In the second, we were unable to finish. We were unable to hit the net on a three-on-one.”
At the other end, for a while it looked as if Carter Hutton would have his second straight good game in goal. Washington had a 13-2 edge in shots but only led by 1-0 after the first period. But T.J. Oshie skated through the Buffalo defense with ease to get a shot from close range. Hutton stopped that, but Nicklas Backstrom was alone on the doorstep for the tap-in. It was 4-0 after two periods, and Alex Ovechkin capped the scoring for the Capitals with his 717th career goal – tying Phil Esposito on the NHL’s all-time list.
After the game, the Sabres headed to New Jersey for what looks to be one of the few winnable games on the schedule for the rest of the month. A victory isn’t going to change the course of the season, but it could serve as a small boost to a team that is flailing in deep water without a life preserver in sight.
“Right now we must find our game, we must find our way,” Krueger said. “It’s an opportunity. Both teams have had equal challenges. We still do everything to push them to win. We must show up, we must compete.”
Saying it is one thing. Doing it is another.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)