By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
It’s too early to start giving out nightly updates on what the playoff race looks like the Eastern Conference of the National Hockey League. After all, a lot can happen in two months.
However, it’s not too early to look at trends concerning a team’s play as we head into those two months. When it comes to the Buffalo Sabres, that trend is discouraging for all concerned.
The Sabres opened up a seven-game homestand on Friday night, and their performance transformed the lowly Chicago Blackhawks into something like the teams from their past that could beat anyone and usually did. The Blackhawks skated away with a 7-3 win before 18,205 who drove on bumpy, snow-covered roads and walked through bitter cold to get to the game.
Those fans could have used some reasons to stand up, jump around, and cheer, if only to warm up, but the Sabres didn’t get them many opportunities to do that.
In fact, the score provided all of the information you might need to determine how the game went.
“You can’t win giving up seven goals, or at least we’re not going to do that,” Jack Eichel said. “We should realize that.”
The captain is correct. Buffalo has gone 2-6 in its last eight games, and it has allowed 35 goals in the process. The Sabres allowed at least four goals in six of those eight games.
All of that did not escape the attention of Buffalo coach Phil Housley, who did a reasonably good job of controlling his emotions that were bubbling about an inch under the surface during the postgame news conference.
“I think we’re too busy trying to score goals,” he said. “When the puck gets turned over, we look for someone else to get back. There’s a lack of respect of our own net.
“On five of the seven goals (that Chicago scored), the puck was on our stick. We were trying to make plays through people against a team that was very effective off the rush. That’s crept into our thinking, and you can see the result. The minuses are going to pile up. The five-on-five differential is going to go up. What are we going to do? We’re going to work on it tomorrow.”
This was an odd game, especially against a team that had 15 more losses than wins entering the contest. There were stretches in the first period when neither team was able to complete more than one pass in a row. The Sabres probably had the better of the play, but had nothing to show for it. However, Drake Caggiula had a late goal in the period to give Chicago the lead, and the Blackhawks no doubt smelled an opportunity.
Thus inspired, Patrick Kane got the 900th point of his career in front of his friends and family from South Buffalo with a goal in the first minute of the second period. That was soon followed by a score from Duncan Keith, one that symbolized the problems that Buffalo goalie Carter Hutton has been having as of late.
“I was a little bit off,” Hutton said. “In my world, if you are a little bit off, they can make you pay. (Keith’s goal) was a bad goal and a backbreaker. Earlier in the season, I made those big saves. Now I’m just missing them. I need to be better.”
And when Eichel got Buffalo on the scoreboard with two minutes left in the second period, Brandon Saad scored 90 seconds later to make it 4-1. The Blackhawks seemed to make Buffalo pay whenever they had an odd-man break in that period. The Sabres heard plenty of boos as they headed for the dressing room.
Eight minutes of fun
Still, there was time for a comeback. Linus Ullmark replaced Hutton in goal, and the Sabres responded with the first 11 shots of the period. Since two of them went in, Buffalo was down by a goal with more than 12 minutes left.
“In the third we did a good job of putting the puck on the net, and we got rewarded,” Casey Mittelstadt said.
But Connor Murphy restored order with a goal with 8:36 left, a score that just took the heat right out of the building on a shot that Ullmark had to stop to keep the Sabres’ hopes alive. Kane had an empty-netter to complete a four-point night, and Saad got one last goal with 38 seconds left when Buffalo was suitably discouraged from a bad night at the office.
And that led to discouraged comments in the locker room afterwards.
“We have no respect for our own end,” Jason Pominville said. “We made those guys look really good. Everything they got, we gave them. That’s not going to let you win many games at this time of the year.”
If the Sabres keep playing like this during the homestand, the playoff talk around town will quickly disappear. Buffalo will try to rediscover a commitment to defensive play on Tuesday against Minnesota.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)