By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
If the Buffalo Sabres haven’t hit bottom, they can see it from here.
The Sabres spent the weekend playing like a helpless expansion team – along the lines of the Kansas City Scouts in the bad old days. The Sabres lost their second straight 3-0 decision to the Philadelphia Flyers, and for the second straight time it wasn’t that close.
“It’s the worst part of hockey,” Rasmus Dahlin said about the team’s skid. “You have to turn this around.”
Want some backing evidence? The Sabres have been shut out in their last three meetings with the Flyers this season, which means they haven’t scored on Philadelphia in more than 180 minutes. Buffalo has only been shut out three times in its history by the same team in the same season twice: the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1970-71 season, and the Boston Bruins in the 1999-2000 season. The Flyers have four chances to get at least one more shutout and make a little obscure Sabres’ history later this season.
Meanwhile, the Sabres are 2-7-1 in their last 10 games, scoring 17 goals in the process. They are at the bottom of the East Division, 10 points behind the fourth-place Islanders in the “race” for the last playoff spot. The task of a turnaround grows more daunting with each game.
Admittedly, there are underlying issues here that might send any team sliding into the abyss. The Sabres lost their first-string goalie and arguably their most valuable player this season, Linus Ullmark, for a month earlier this week. The two back-ups are a combined 1-6-1 this season. In addition, the team has played nine games in the 14 days since returning from a Covid-19 break on February 15, a ridiculous pace.
If those two matters weren’t lurking in the background, it wouldn’t have been surprising if general manager Kevin Adams had taken over the postgame Zoom meeting by force late Sunday afternoon and announced a huge trade, some firings … or both.
No easy answers
“We’re not very connected as a group,” said Jack Eichel, who returned to action after missing two games with an injury. “We’ve just got to dig deep. I’m trying to process this myself. If we had answers, we’d spit them out. We’re trying to figure it out. It’s a really good group of guys in there. But it’s been tough so far. We obviously haven’t performed the way we want to.”
Sunday’s game featured a slightly different script that the one that went over so badly on Saturday. The Sabres came out with some intensity to start the game, keeping the Flyers in their own zone for the early minutes. But Philadelphia probably figured it only had to weather that early storm before taking charge, and it did so.
“I thought we had a much better start,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “And we had a good feel for how the game went then. It slipped after the first part of the first period – it’s about sharpness, sharpness with the puck. We moved it a little bit slower, and they check as well as any team in the legue. We didn’t move the pressure. I am not happy with the way the game evolved. That is extremely disappointing.”
Still the Sabres were at least scoreless after the first period, so there was a little hope to be found. But Sean Couturier took care of that when the Flyers’ center put home a rebound only 22 seconds into the second period. A little bit more than a minute later, Michael Raffl scored on a dandy deflection to make it 2-0. After all that had gone on this month and this weekend, it felt like the game was probably over.
The Flyers piled up the shots for the rest of the period, finishing with 21, and had one stretch in the game where they had a 27-4 edge in shots. One more went in on a deflection, as James van Riemsdyk’s stick forced the puck to take a sudden right turn and go into the net.
Nothing wrong with goaltending
Goalie Jonas Johansson finished with 35 saves on 38 shots, and no one was blaming him for the loss.
“I felt good,” he said after the game. “I think the longer the game went on, the more comfortable I felt. They (the coaches) have done a good job with the taxi squad, keeping us ready.”
Johansson didn’t have much to do the rest of the afternoon, as the Flyers were content once again to claim the win and earn another shutout. The Sabres didn’t have the energy for any sort of sustained push. At one point in the third period, a loose puck slid out into the slot – almost on a tee for a slap shot from Brandon Montour with no one but the goalie in front of him. The Sabres’ defenseman got all of it, but it smashed into the post and deflected into the empty seats. Montour slowly skated back to the blue line with an expression that looked like he was thinking, “What do I have to do?” There’s a lot of that going around.
It would be a good time for a vacation in, say, Cancun (I hear that’s popular these days). Instead, the Sabres have a five-game road trip. It starts in New York on Tuesday with the Rangers. Then they face the Islanders for three straight games and finish with, ugh, the Flyers. Unless there’s a bit of a turnaround by then, the rest of the season might be irrelevant.
“Everyone is looking for an answer,” Eichel said “The guys have stuck together. It’s a positive mindset, but currently it’s not working. No one feels sorry for us. We need to dig ourselves out of it. Everyone is having a tough go right now. We need to have some fun, loosen up. That will go a long way. We’re going on a bit of a road trip, and hopefully we can find something in New York and build on that.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)