The Buffalo Sabres brought this upon themselves and only they can fix it. Whether you blame the defense, secondary scoring, the powerplay, goaltending, the coach and/or the general manager, the Sabres are in a free fall and it doesn't seem as if they have any idea how to get out of it.
After Friday's 7-3 debacle at home against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Sabres fell to 3-7-0 in their last 10 games and their 25-20-6 record puts them below the real .500 mark for the first time since November 4 when they fell to 7-6-2 after a loss to the NY Rangers. They followed that game with a 10-game winning streak, which had a lot to do with them being above .500 for so long, but their subsequent fall from grace dropped them to where they are now. In looking back as to how the 2018-19 season has unfolded, it's really been a tale of three seasons--pre-streak, streak and post-streak--for Buffalo and after 51 games we're still not sure just who the hell they are.
The word emanating from KeyBank Center is that the Sabres are trying to get back to who they were before and head coach Phil Housley yesterday pointed to how they played after an early-season shakeup in the lines and d-pairings sparked a strong run. "Everybody had a role, an identity," Housley told the gathered media yesterday. "But in saying that, I think we were playing the game the right way back then, making good puck decisions, managing our game, our checking detail was really solid and we've got to get back to that."
"You can mix the lines up all you want, but if you don't manage a game, you don't have a respect for your own net, you're going to get the same result."
All very true, Buffalo may have played their best game to that point of the season when they lost to the NY Rangers 3-1 back in November. However, they also never put together that full-game effort the next 10 games yet won all of them. During the streak they were playing extremely well for parts of games, yet were still winning, and perhaps they thought that their 10-game harmonic conversion of good luck combined with starry-eyed confidence is who they really were. Although it hasn't happened yet, this downward spiral should have brought them back down to earth and if they don't figure it out real soon (like tonight,) they're in for a rough finish to the season.
Buffalo's overall record looks pretty solid on the surface as their 56 accumulated points projects out to a 90-point season, a number most fans in Sabreland would take as it was well into the upper range of preseason prognostications. Prior to the streak the Sabres were 7-6-2, which was solid coming off of a last place finish in 2017-18. Those 16 points put them on an 87-point pace which would represent a substantial increase over the prior season (64.)
Then the 10-game winning streak hit and expectations went wild but after it was over Buffalo's season took a dive. Since the streak ended the Sabres are 8-14-4, a record that would project out to 63 points over an 82-game season. When you combine their pre-streak and post-streak records at 15-20-6 you get 72 points. Add in an adjustment of eight points from a .439% non-streak winning percentage applied to the winning streak and you have a team that's at about an 80-point pace.
Too many numbers? You betcha. But that's what we've been dealing with lately and the question remains, which team is this?
Housley's in the same boat and he looks to be in desperation-mode as he threw his lines in a blender at yesterday's practice. The second year coach made changes on both powerplay units, mixed up his defense-pairings and also said he's going with backup Linus Ullmark in net tonight.
Welcome to the Pressure Dome, coach.
Tonight the Sabres face off against a Minnesota Wild team that has given them all sorts of problems. Buffalo is only 3-6-1 vs. Minnesota in their last 10 and a paltry 1-8-1 vs. the Wild at home and they'll also be facing a Minnesota team that's in the midst of a heated wild card battle. The Wild have 56 points and sit in the first wild card spot in the West but have six teams within five points of them on their tail.
This is the second game of a seven-game homestand for Buffalo and it was looked upon as a way to get back into a winning groove. They have a solid 14-7-3 record at home (16th in the league) and that was to be the gateway to entrenching themselves in a wild card spot. However, that Chicago game raised some serious doubts as to whether they have what it takes when the pressure is turned up.
Buffalo has played in three games post All-Star break, which is the beginning of the NHL stretch-run, and they're 1-2-0 since returning. Their coach just blew his lineup apart and if this team thought there was pressure before, it gets worse as they move towards the trade deadline. And speaking of that, neither players nor fans should expect a savior-type deal prior to the February 25th deadline as GM Jason Botterill is sticking to a plan that does not include rentals for high draft picks. If the right offer comes along he'll move on it, but odds of the right offer coming along are pretty slim.
This Buffalo team brought it upon themselves and they're the ones that will need to find a way out. It could better, or it could get worse and maybe it stays pretty much the same, but it's all on them. With that in mind, we should be able to see who responds to the pressure and who doesn't, and that includes Housley himself.
The lines and pairings for tonight according to Sabres twitter: