By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Here’s a one-sentence description of how bad things went for the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night.
Jack Eichel did all the fighting and Brandon Montour did all of the scoring.
You don’t need to know anything more than that about Buffalo’s discouraging 4-1 loss to Minnesota. It was a one-sided defeat at the hands of a Wild team that came into the contest at the bottom of the overall NHL standings, which tells you something about where the Sabres are right now.
To put it another way, Buffalo now has more losses than wins (11 to 10) for the first time all season. The squad is on a 1-6-2 stretch that is starting to look like a major spiral into the abyss.
“It’s a real tough stretch,” defenseman Jake McCabe said. “That’s why you bank points when you can at the beginning of the year. We’re facing a really large test.”
“We’re all in this together,” Eichel said. “No one is feeling sorry for us. It’s frustrating, the position that we’re in. It’s a test of our character right now, our willingness to compete on a nightly basis. Our will to win – that’s what it comes down to.”
The Sabres have two major problems at the moment, and they go together neatly. The team has encountered a rash of injuries to its forwards, a spot that isn’t loaded with quality depth when everyone is healthy. There are a few players up from Rochester, while defenseman John Gilmour took a few turns at forward on Tuesday.
Mix that in with the fact that some of the healthy forwards aren’t doing much scoring. We’re just past the first quarter mark of the season. Casey Mittelstadt has seven points, none of them coming in the last 11 games. Conor Sheary hasn’t scored since Oct. 17 and has three goals with two assists. Jimmy Vesey has no goals and two assists.
That puts a huge burden on the team’s top scorers. If Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart don’t get on the scoresheet, it’s tough for Buffalo to win. Montour’s goal ended a scoreless streak of 179 minutes, 20 seconds by Sabres who don’t have a No. 9 on the back of their sweater.
And when things go badly on offense, players start trying too hard. The usual phrase is “squeezing the sticks.”
“How can you not? Eichel asked. “We’re all human here. When things aren’t going well, when pucks aren’t finding the back of the net, you aren’t as confidence with the puck on your stick. Guys are definitely squeezing their stick. It takes a couple of garbage goals, hard work, to get us going, and hopefully that changes things.”
This one got away rather quickly. Zach Parise of the Wild came out of the penalty box a little more than seven minutes into the game, just in time for a Sabres turnover at the Minnesota blue line. That led to a two-on-one break and a Wild goal.
The killer goal came right at the end of the first period. Parise tipped the puck into the net on a shot from the point with 2.8 seconds left. Buffalo heard some boos at the end of the period, and it seemed to take the energy out of the building.
“Special teams are a factor,” Eichel said. “We don’t score on ours (power plays), and they get one on theirs – it makes a difference. It’s frustrating when you get down.”
Jonas Brodin made it 3-0 Minnesota early in the second period, although he had to wait a little while before the goal counted. The Sabres challenged the play for an offsides violation. The replay showed a Wild player was in the Buffalo zone when the puck entered that area … but he clearly came out of the zone before returning to chase the puck. Therefore, it was a good goal – and the game more or less felt over.
Eichel tried to change the karma in the building in an unusual way, as he started throwing punches at Minnesota’s Joel Eriksson Ek – who isn’t exactly a tough guy. Eichel received a double minor for his trouble while Ek was not penalized.
“He wants to win,” Montour said about Eichel. “Things aren’t going our way. You see the frustration, you see the intensity. There was no jump on the bench. Jack was trying to spark the team. We needed to change the game, because there was no energy.”
The Sabres played better after that, and defenseman Montour scored with the goaltender pulled. But a Wild empty-netter erased any hopes of a miracle comeback.
“After a goal is scored against us, fear comes to us too quickly,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “We have to do something about that. We have to stay with the plan and fight through this.”
Things don’t get much easier for the Sabres from this point. They play in Boston on Thursday, and in Florida on Saturday. The Panthers game is the start of a run of five contests in seven nights. It’s a good thing some of the wounded will be back soon, because the team that took the ice Tuesday didn’t look capable of turning things around in the near future.
“We will stick together, we will work on it, and we will fight our way out of this,” Krueger said.
Comments from the GM
Sabres’ general manager Jason Botterill answered some questions from the media before the game. Here are some highlights:
On the rash of injuries: “I think the one that’s most disappointing is someone like Tage Thompson. He spent a lot of time this summer working on his game. … It’s a disappointment for him. But it’s a situation where we should have some players coming back this weekend.”
On Kyle Okposo’s concussion: There’s a lot of concern, simply because we appreciate and respect what he brings to our team. He’s important to our locker room. Our big concern is that Kyle is all right. “
On trying to show that this season isn’t a rerun of last season: “That’s something that we have to prove, that it’s not. We need the confidence we had in the locker room, especially at the start of the season. We had a stretch where we played Washington, the Islanders and Tampa Bay – they’ve been at the top of the league the last couple of years, and that’s where we want to get to. We’re not there yet.“
On whether recalling first-round draft pick Dylan Cozens was considered when the injuries started mounting: “From Dylan’s standpoint, we’re ecstatic about him as a player and his development, but he is not on the radar for this situation. His goal right now is to help Lethbridge out and to find a way onto the world junior team.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)
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