Jack Eichel has been a model of leadership this season putting on a display of maturity both on and off the ice. As captain of the Buffalo Sabres, win or lose he's the go-to guy post-game to answer questions and on most occasions he's usually a good interview whether showing guarded enthusiasm after a win or contemplative assessment after a loss. With the Sabres doing a lot of losing as of late perhaps it finally got to him and a rather ugly side of him came out last night.
Last season we saw a lot of losing as well, and a lot of Ryan O'Reilly post-game saying things like, "We have to be better," and "I have to be better," and "It's on me." It got to the point where you could almost grab any of his interviews from any prior loss and re-air it after the most recent loss. However, O'Reilly is gone, traded to the St. Louis Blues last summer, and as the unquestioned leader and captain of the team, Eichel is now in O'Reilly's shoes. And for maybe the first time this season, Eichel offered up O'Reilly-like answers after last night's 6-5 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.
"I didn't play well tonight. It's starts with me so I've got to be better," said Eichel in a rather curt way. Something wasn't right as the captain wasn't in the mood and reporers must have known it would be a tough interview from the get-go. Eichel, surrounded by reporters, started out the session by telling them, "You guys gonna look at me or you gonna ask questions? Anybody asking questions or [can] we get out of here?"
That's the frustrated Jack Eichel we saw on occasion last season when the franchise center and his team were on their way to a 64-point, last place finish. Every once in a while we'd see a post-game interview where he really didn't want to be there, much less want to talk, and his snippy responses seemed to come off as that of a petulant child berating those who dare ask him a question.
News flash, Jack, Being a captain is not all rainbows, unicorns and jujus and belittling the media because you're frustrated with yourself and the failures of your team does no one any good.
Such were the revealing post-game interviews last night as the Sabres dropped the game and fell one point behind Carolina in a race to the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Hurricanes are the only team in the league who has a longer playoff drought than Buffalo's seven years so this game and the finish to this season has a lot of meaning. Buffalo scored five goals against the 'Canes and that should be enough to win the game, right?
Not if you don't play defense. It was an atrocious display by both the defense corps and the forward group last night as they let Carolina go to the crease without any interference. That much was clear, but Sabres forward Sam Reinhart mistakenly put the blame on goaltending last night. "We can't expect to win hockey games 6-5, 7-6," he said post-game. "We need more from our goalies, and we need it from the start of hockey games. It's frustrating."
Linus Ullmark, meet the undercarriage of a bus.
There's not a soul in Sabreland who wouldn't agree with Reinhart's statement about Buffalo's goaltending being sub-par during this elongated slump. However, his timing's a little off as goaltending was the least of their problems last night. Yes, Ullmark gave up six goals, but anyone watching would be hard-pressed to say it was his fault on any of them. Here are a some of the calls from Carolina's broadcast team.
Goal 1--"[Sebastian] Aho had Eichel and [Jeff] Skinner for lunch."
Goal 2--"Tuevo Teravainen gets to the loose change and finds the yawning cage."
Goal 4--"Standing right out in front, Brock McGinn this time. He was unmarked in the slot."
Goal 6--"A breakout develops, maybe a 2-on-0. Teravainen and [Justin] Williams.
Perhaps when Reinhart and his teammates go over the game he'll issue an apology to Ullmark and maybe he'll understand that the goalie in net last night (Ullmark) was the same one that made key saves the prior game, including all three shots in the shootout, to help the Sabres win and he was also the same goalie that held the Dallas Stars to one goal on 27 shots but still lost. Reinhart's post-game remarks last night were better suited for the 7-3 loss against the Chicago Blackhawks where the goaltending was atrocious lead by starter Carter Hutton. Reinhart also had a rough game against the Blackhawks, but he wasn't around for post-game interviews. That task fell to Eichel, rookie Casey Mittelstadt and 36 yr. old Jason Pominville, who were left to answer why the team fell flat on it's face to kick off a seven-game homestand.
Having said all that, Eichel and Reinhart have been playing extremely well all season and Reinhart in particular has been on-point for the better part of this calendar year. But, it's a team game and not every player has the skill-level of a second-overall pick. It's up to players like them to shine in pressure situations, of which these last three games represented.
The defense has been a mess for quite some time and head coach Phil Housley has been trying to get his team to focus more on that aspect of the game. That includes the forwards taking ownership of the defensive zone. It was another broken record last night. After the Chicago game Housley said he thought his team was "too busy trying to score goals" and that the "the lack of respect for our own net" was an area of concern. Those problems crept up again but in a different area, directly in front of the net. “It’s a choice you’ve got to make, right?” he said. “Protecting your own net, having a respect for it. You look at the game, five of the six goals come right in front of our net. That’s an area that players from our opposition should be very wary of going into."
Housley said these problems were "fixable" but a media member asked him why after 50-some-odd games these problems are still cropping up. A clearly frustrated and agitated Housley offered up a rather curt retort that questioned the questioner. "For 50-some-odd games?" asked the coach as if to say that the reporter was implying that every game so far this season was a defensive disaster. The reporter clarified and reframed it, "at this point in the season, why are these issues still creeping up.?"
"Because it's a respect for your own net. That's why," said the coach rather tartly, leaving a room of reporters wondering if Housley was going to send that media member to the corner.
It was a rough post-game for the coach as earlier in the session a response from Housley came off as a call for Ullmark to make room under the bus for GM Jason Botteril. Housley was asked if as an organization, they believe their defense corps is capable of still playing here. The coach quickly redirected that question right to the feet of the GM. "That's Jason's job."
Ouch. Was that the sound of a frustrated coach calling out his general manager for not giving him the personnel to work with ? Maybe, maybe not, but that's the way it came off.
Two days ago we posted a blog titled, "Welcome to the Pressure Dome." This team is finding out that the games now are much more intense than earlier in the season and that it's harder to win with the pressure cranked up. Buffalo is treading water in alternating wins and losses while hovering around that real .500 mark (26-20-7.) That's not very good for a team that looked to be a playoff lock back in November. With the pressure increasing, the process of losing seems to be revealing the real persons behind the players and coaches. You've got a franchise player coming off as a petulant child, a key offensive cog wrongfully calling out his goaltending and a coach who may have just thrown his GM under the bus.