By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The Buffalo Sabres started the month of February with some high hopes. They were about to launch a seven-game homestand, giving them an opportunity to build some momentum as the season headed into its final weeks.
Now that homestand is over, and it’s time for a review. Buffalo finished the stretch with a 3-3-1 record, which adds up to seven points in seven games. The Sabres had some good moments – the victory over the Islanders was probably the best – and some bad moments – almost any of the losses, although the Winnipeg defeat wasn’t too discouraging.
Add it up, and you get mediocrity. That’s a reasonably fair snapshot of where the team stands about now. Buffalo didn’t take itself out of the playoff race during these past two weeks, but it didn’t jump up and make itself more of a factor. And that hurts.
While the Sabres were certainly not good in the losses to Chicago and Carolina earlier in the month, Friday’s 6-2 loss to the Rangers certainly felt more important than just another mid-February game. Perhaps it’s because it was the end of the homestand and represented a chance to go 4-2-1 in that stretch. But more likely it was because of the way the team played.
The Rangers had moments where they forechecked the Sabres right into the ice, maintaining possession until they created a scoring opportunity. New York jumped out to a 2-0 lead before 15 minutes had elapsed, and the Sabres never could get back to level.
It all left Sabres’ coach Phil Housley angry and frustrated. Check out this comment.
“We don’t have time to wait around. That’s what is so disappointing about this game,” he said. “Everything we did well, even if we didn’t get the result we wanted against Winnipeg, we felt we were going to attack the game tonight. We thought it was going to be easy. New York worked, give them credit. They cycled the puck well. We didn’t kill a play. We let them roam. We let them ride our checks.
Ouch. It’s rather rare for an NHL coach to call his own team “soft.”
“It’s frustrating, because we’ve played some really good hockey, especially in this homestand at times,” Housley said. “We were tough. We boxed out. So that’s the disappointing thing. We got away from the details that brought us success in the last three games.”
This game almost felt like a different sport than Tuesday’s game with the Islanders, which featured few offensive chances. On Friday, the puck didn’t spend much time in the neutral zone, often moving quickly from one end to the other and then staying there for a while. The commitment to defense had vanished for the time being.
The players weren’t any happier about the night’s defensive performance than the coach was.
“I think plays were broken down,” Zach Bogosian said. “We have to do a better job of going inside-out and keeping them outside. At times we did that, but not enough.”
Not quite connecting
And in spite of that, the Sabres had their chances of making it a much more acceptable night. Jeff Skinner’s two goals – that’s 36 and counting – kept the team close, so Buffalo only trailed by 3-2 entering the third period. The Sabres hit the pipe a couple of times and just missed connecting on a couple of opportunities.
“Maybe if we get that third goal, it’s a different story,” Jack Eichel said. “They got the next one, and got a few more. It’s hard.
“It happens. You can’t blame it on that. It’s important to get back to work.”
Pavel Buchnevich scored at the end of another long visit to the Sabres’ defensive zone with 4:01 left, and Vladislav Namestnikov added some insurance when Linus Ullmark mishandled the puck only eight seconds later. And that was that.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Sabres fell well short of the night’s goal of putting two consecutive wins on the board for the first time since Dec. 11-13. We’ve been saying that for two months now, but Buffalo still isn’t looking like a team desperate to become a major factor in the playoff race.
“Obviously we have to string some games together here,” Bogosian said. “It’s coming down to the homestretch. It’s about consistence. We’ve been up and down this year. We have to find that to give ourselves a chance.”
Now comes a very difficult stretch of games. Buffalo plays at New Jersey, Florida and Tampa Bay, stops a home for a game with Washington, and then heads to Toronto and Philadelphia. When those games are over, maybe we’ll have a bigger clue on where this team ultimately will finish in the standings.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)