By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page
There wasn’t much new with the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night.
For starters, the coach wasn’t new. Ralph Krueger was still behind the bench for the team when they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 5-2, in the KeyBank Center. For those of you who had Wednesday as a likely day for general manager Kevyn Adams to make such a move – I’m guilty of that – nothing happened. Gerard Gallant or Bruce Boudreau weren’t even spotted checking out real estate in Clarence this week.
We don’t even know if any such coaching move was even discussed at the highest levels of the Sabres’ organization. However, would it make that much of a difference? The Sabres simply don’t have a competitive team right now, particularly against a division loaded with good squads, and Toe Blake couldn’t change that.
The numbers tell the story. Buffalo does not have a win in its last nine games, going 0-7-2 in that stretch. It is 2-12-2 in its last 16 games, dating back to January 30. You can add one other key statistic – number of key injured players: two. Goalie Linus Ullmark is not going to be back for some time, and Jack Eichel’s reported neck injury sent him out of the area for a thorough examination as his time on the sidelines looks indefinite.
Ullmark’s injury deserves special consideration here, since his level of play hasn’t been replaced. The Sabres have given up five goals in each of their last five games, which is no way to end a losing streak. Jonas Johansson received the start for the second straight game. That was a bit of a surprise, since Carter Hutton is considered the No. 2 goalie and has played Pittsburgh well over the years. However, since both goalies have save percentages under .890, it probably doesn’t make much difference. Johansson wasn’t terrible on Thursday night, but certainly there was a goal or two that he’d like back. Considering that the Sabres have scored more than two goals once in their last eight games, they can’t afford to give away any cheap ones.
Much of the postgame conversation had nothing to do with that. It centered on a play involving Sabres rookie Dylan Cozens early in the third period. The center was about six feet from the boards when Pittsburgh’s Zak Aston-Reese gave him a shove in the back, forcing Cozens to hit the boards awkwardly and heavily.
“I think it was a bad hit,” Victor Olofsson said. “He was in a vulnerable place, and he had his momentum after he dumped the puck. He (Aston-Reese) gave him an extra push, and it’s a dangerous play.”
Sticking up for Cozens
Cozens looked rather out of it as he left the ice; no updates on his status were immediately available. In the meantime, Colin Miller immediately came over to pass the word with his fists to Aston-Reese that such behavior would not be tolerated.
“In hockey, stuff happens quick,” Miller said. “You have to assess the situation as quickly as possible.”
“It’s a push in the (uniform) numbers in a dangerous, vulnerable spot,” Krueger added. “It has to be a penalty. Good for Millsie, jumping in. It’s really difficult when you see a player is pushed, and you know the danger. (I was) more disappointed with Dylan to come out of the game at that point (than the lack of a penalty call).”
Such actions can result in giving a team a spark, but it didn’t happen this time. Pittsburgh’s Anthony Angello scored 16 seconds later with a backbreaking goal that make it 4-2 for the Penguins.
There were a couple of other aspects of the game worth noting. Tage Thompson not only was in the lineup for Buffalo, but he scored his first goal in more than two years. It should be one of the Sabres’ big projects for the rest of the season to find out if players like Thompson can be a contributor going forward. At least for one night, he was.
“Oh, it’s always nice to put one in the net,” he said. “I haven’t played hockey in a while, coming off a shoulder injury (last season). It’s nice to get that off your back, but at the same time we need to start winning games. That will make me feel better.”
Ringing in the ears
Then there was the matter of the goal posts, which were ringing like a Christmas pageant. The Sabres hit the pipes four times in Thursday’s game. It left everybody wondering if there was a record for such accomplishments, but it’s typical of how Buffalo’s luck is going as of late.
“Right now, it’s the stretch we are in,” said Olofsson, who had his first even-strength goal of the season. “We have to keep shooting, keep working, keep grinding. If we work hard enough, we’ll turn the posts into goals.”
Even so, luck is rarely is a long-term substitute for talent. The Sabres’ schedule for the rest of the March is almost filled with difficult matchups, including four more games with Pittsburgh and three with the Boston Bruins.
“We don’t have easy solutions,” Krueger said. “The character of our group is being tested. Maybe we can show growth out of this, hopefully sooner rather than later.”
In the meantime, don’t expect the stories to have many happy endings.