Buffalo Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger has a problem on his hands and although it's no time to panic, his team has been losing valuable points the last month or so because of special teams, most notably an incredibly inept powerplay.
After their 1/8 performance with the man advantage last night in their loss to the Calgary Flames, which includes giving up a shorthanded goal in the second period, the Sabres are now 3/47 (6.38%) on the powerplay through November and into the first two games in December. Of those three goals, only Rasmus Ristolainen's was of significance as opened the scoring in an eventual 3-2 loss at the Boston Bruins. Defenseman Henri Jokiharju's third period powerplay tallyl was goal No. 7 in a 7-1 romp over the New Jersey Devils and Jack Eichel's powerplay goal last night came with :48 seconds left in the third period and the goalie pulled to make the final score 4-3 Calgary.
The first two questions post-game last night were about the struggling powerplay and Krueger alluded to his team "letting up a bit" after the 7-1 win against the Devils. "This league is punishing if you let up just a few percentage points," he told the gathered media in Calgary, "you're going to get it right back in the teeth like we did tonight."
"I think the powerplay is a reflection, possibly, of just losing a few percentage points of intensity," he continued, "and we need to get that back very quickly with back-to-backs this weekend. We're extremely disappointed and all we can do is go back to work and hold ourselves accountable for what happened here today and come out much stronger. We're going to go to the drawing board and we're going to try and look for simplicity and add that to the work ethic we need on the powerplay."
A powerplay increases the opportunity for pretty goals and God knows this team seems to fancy pretty goals. However, every time they lean in that direction, it comes right back at them and they usually end up on the wrong end of the score. Anyone who's painfully watched their powerplay in decline has seen their intensity-level drop and it would seem that with each failure, their nonchalance becomes more predominant and they're just incredibly easy to defend.
Krueger needs to change that somehow and if it means giving the No. 1 unit a shakeup, so be it. He's generally gone with the same set-up since Day-one of Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson from the dots down and a defenseman at the point. That's a lot of skill in that forward group but their intensity-level individually and as a group is lacking on a consistent basis. Early on in the season this group was quick to the puck with support from all over and it worked splendidly. However, as teams got tape on them they made it difficult and the more difficult it became, it seemed the less they wanted to work and relied upon pretty to try and get things done. The result, which includes the worst powerplay in the NHL and three shorthanded goals against since November 1, speaks for itself.
A powerless Sabres powerplay is also frittering away possible points in the standings. The 4-3 loss at Calgary last night not withstanding, Buffalo has lost six one-goal games (0-5-1) with a powerplay that has gone 1/16 since November 1 while also squandering three opportunities in the second period of an eventual 5-2 loss at Tampa Bay when the game was within a goal either way. With both Toronto and Tampa Bay faltering in the division, a top-three spot is up for grabs right now and a point in any of the above mention six one-goal games would have put Buffalo in sole possession of second place in the Atlantic Division. But the powerplay has let this team down.
Krueger has done a fine job of mixing his lines up and playing to his strengths while using a rather unorthodox lineup of 11 forwards and seven defensemen dating back seven games and it's helped produce 40 evaen-strength goals-for since November 1 which tied for ninth in the league. Perhaps it's time to mix things up on a stale powerplay that needs a big jolt.
Although you've got to love the skill of Eichel, Reinhart, Skinner and Olofsson, their sense of urgency both individually and as a group has been lacking and Krueger needs to somehow give them a kick in the ass. And he needs to do it quick. December will be over before we know it and from then the trade deadline is merely a blink of the eye away. Any points they can pocket now will go a long way in determining whether or not they'll be in the thick of a playoff race and with the way things have unfolded through a third of the season, opportunity awaits. But they'll need all facets of the game clicking.