By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
On Valentine’s Day, the Buffalo Sabres had a .500 record in terms of pure wins and losses at 28-21-7. The team was in the middle of the playoff race.
Since that time, the bottom has fallen out. Buffalo dropped to 3-17-3 in its last 23 games after Sunday night’s 4-0 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at the KeyBank Center. It was a discouraging performance at home by a team that usually has saved such outings for road games. But no matter where they’ve played lately, they’ve lost – including the last seven in a row.
It’s been an epic collapse. In terms of just wins and losses, a team that was at .500 after 56 games of the season has played .130 hockey for the next 23 games. You wouldn’t think that was even possible, but the numbers don’t lie. (If you want to actual points divided by possible points, the numbers are .563 and .196.)
I found myself wondering if this is the biggest late-season collapse in Sabre history. While there are all sorts of ways to quantify such claims, a quick glance at past seasons would seem to indicate we are in new territory.
Let’s start with the fact that the Sabres have nine points since Valentine’s Day. Yes, they have three games left on the schedule at this writing, so they could get some points along the way. But let’s see how Sabre teams in the past decade did in their final 26 games:
Year – Record – Points
2017-18 – 9-15-2 – 20
2016-17 – 10-14-2 – 22
2015-16 – 13-8-5 – 31
2014-15 – 7-14-5 – 19
2013-14 – 6-19-2 – 14
2012-13 – 12-9-5 – 29
2011-12 – 15-6-5 – 35
2010-11 – 16-6-4 – 26
I’m not about to go through the entire history of the franchise, but here are three other Sabre teams that weren’t so good:
Year – Record – Points
1970-71 – 10-11-5 – 25
1971-72 – 6-13-7 – 19
1986-87 – 11-13-2 – 24
Therefore, unless the Sabres get at least five points in these last three games, they will have the worst record in the final 26 games of any of the teams reviewed. And just remember, a couple of those teams featured front offices that weren’t exactly rooting for their own team to succeed (2013-14 and especially 2014-15).
Just for curiosity’s sake, let’s look at the other teams that have finished last in the overall standings in the past decade, and how they did in their final 26 games:
Year – Team – Points
2017-18 – Buffalo – 20
2016-17 – Colorado – 14
2015-16 – Toronto – 20
2014-15 – Buffalo – 19
2013-14 – Buffalo – 14
2012-13 – Florida – 19
2011-12 – Columbus – 27
2010-11 – Edmonton – 22
2009-10 – Edmonton – 20
The Sabres’ “stretch drive” is not a record. For example, the Washington Capitals finished with a 4-22-0 record for eight points in their final 26 games in 1974-75. However, since they had an 8-67-5 record for the season, you’d have to say their end-of-the-season performance was at least in character. The Kansas City Scouts, that season’s other expansion team, finished off a 15-54-11 season by earning 10 points in their final 26 games. If Buffalo loses its final three games in regulation, it will fit right between those two relatively terrible first-year squads that were left with scraps in the expansion draft.
Remember, too, that the Caps and Scouts didn’t have overtime and shootout points available for losses. What would the Sabres’ record be down the stretch if they only played 60-minute games and could have ties? The answer is 1-17-5 for a total of seven points. Let’s put it in italics: If Buffalo loses its last three games in regulation time, it would be behind both the original Capitals and Scouts for that closing 26-game stretch.
Just for your information, the 1992-93 Ottawa Senators had six points in their last 26 games, and the San Jose Sharks of the same year had eight down the stretch. But the first-year New York Islanders of 1972-73 had 13 points in their final 26 games to end up 12-60-6.
For the record, some of the teams that dropped off the map like the Sabres have done in 2019 might not have made it down to last place, and thus weren’t reviewed here.
Even so, you get the idea. Buffalo’s collapse must be considered horrific and historic. Any action taken against practically any member of the organization’s hockey department can be considered justifiable under these extreme circumstances.
As for the game …
We only needed to watch the first seven minutes or so to see how this was going to play out. The Sabres actually had a little jump in the early going, keeping the puck in the Columbus end much of the time and piling up a 7-1 edge in shots.
When the Blue Jackets finally did get a scoring opportunity, the puck went into the net (Pierre-Luc Dubois).
“Our start was really good,” Kyle Okposo said. “We came out and attacked. We were playing really well in the first seven, eight minutes. They got one and we sat back on our heels a little bit.”
It would be easy to guess that the Sabres’ confidence is so fragile at this point that one goal was enough to discourage them. One goal led to two, and two led to three before the first period was over.
“(On the first goal) there was a faceoff loss, and on a simple coverage, we let go of the centerman. Those are veteran mistakes,” coach Phil Housley said. “On a penalty-kill, you leave a guy wide open in front of the net. The third goal was just a wall play. Those mistakes wind up in our net.”
With a three-goal lead and playing the second game in two nights, the Blue Jackets saw no need to keep the foot on the gas pedal from there. They could afford to play a nice, safe game and try to take advantage of the odd scoring chance. Columbus is in the midst of a torrid playoff battle, and two relatively easy points must have been deeply appreciated.
The Sabres did finish with 38 shots on goal, but Sergei Bobrovsky stopped them all. You can’t say he was tested all that often, but he was always in the right place at the right time to earn the shutout. That’s nine such blankings by Bobrovsky this season.
At the end of each period, the fans let their dissatisfaction be known by booing the Sabres to the dressing room.
“I feel for them,” Jake McCabe said about the fans. “Nobody wants to lose in this city, including us. It’s not like we want to go out there and lose every single night. … It’s been a few years of this, which is unfortunate for a lot of us this year. Once again, the only way we’re going to get out of it with compete and a good work ethic. We got a few games left, and we just want to come to the rink with a positive attitude.”
Frustration has overcome everyone associated with this team, and ultimately the only cure is going to be the end of the season. Before that arrives on Saturday in Detroit, the Sabres will host Nashville on Tuesday and Ottawa on Thursday.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)