The season is only four games old but the Buffalo Sabres’ woefully unbalanced offense is prompting plenty of questions heading into today’s game against the Washington Capitals in Verizon Center.
• When will this team get any secondary scoring? The Sabres are 2-2 and have scored 11 goals in the four games. Each member of the top line (Thomas Vanek, Cody Hodgson, Jason Pominville) has three goals. That means the rest of the roster has combined for just two, by Steve Ott and Tyler Myers in the opener against Philadelphia.
• Will Vanek even play today? He took a hard fall in the second period Friday night and suffered an undisclosed muscle strain, believed to be in his back or rib cage.
“We talked this morning and he’s doing OK,” coach Lindy Ruff said after practice Saturday in the Northtown Center at Amherst. “We’ll wait and see but I really anticipate he plays.”
• Wither Mikhail Grigorenko? The 18-year-old rookie played just two shifts in the final 40 minutes of Friday’s 3-1 loss to Carolina. Today would be the final game he could play under his five-game junior tryout but Ruff said after practice Saturday that Grigorenko might sit out so the Sabres could buy some more practice time for him and not hit the five-game maximum.
• What will the lines look like? As promised after Friday’s loss, Ruff shook things up Saturday. With Vanek out, Marcus Foligno joined Hodgson and Pominville. Grigorenko was on the second line, centering Steve Ott and Drew Stafford. Tyler Ennis was dropped to the third line between Jochen Hecht and Patrick Kaleta while Matt Ellis centered John Scott and Nathan Gerbe on the fourth combination.
The Grigorenko question is a daily one in Sabreland. Ruff gave it a new twist Saturday by admitting he probably erred by playing the rookie on the fourth line with John Scott and Nathan Gerbe in Friday’s game. The coach said he was trying to get a better matchup against Carolina center Eric Staal and it left Grigorenko on the outside looking in.
“It’s like burning a game,” Ruff said forlornly. “For the most part, having the Hecht line against Staal was working pretty good for us. Ninety percent of the time, we wanted a tougher guy on faceoffs against him. Then I got to a point where [Grigorenko] hadn’t played for so long, I didn’t think it was fair to throw him in a tough situation. Your legs aren’t going and I burned up a game really is what I did.”
Ruff said he didn’t want to make the same mistake today and that’s why scratching Grigorenko might be a choice.
“I like where this kid is going,” Ruff said. “I like where his game has been. Even his early shifts [Friday] I thought were good shifts. They had the makings of doing something good. That part and where the game plan ended up was tough on him.”
“He’s 18 years old and people tend to forget how young he is and every day is experience,” said Ott. “Obviously the rest of it is up to management. ... You see flashes of great stuff. When I look at myself when I was young, sometimes you’re going to play less minutes, sometimes you’re going to play a little bit more and get thrown opportunities to succeed. Then you’re going to be backed off a little more. That’s part of becoming a professional hockey player. He’s handling it really well for 18 years old.”
Ruff pushed his team hard during Saturday’s practice, screaming at one point to his forwards, “Every puck is going to go deep. No more of this pond hockey [bleep],” and later adding, “no more pond. It’s real hockey now. Real hockey.”
What were his beefs? Get pucks deep. Be sharper to cut down on offsides. Reduce turnovers that create quick counter opportunities for the opposition.
“More north-south. We have to get rid of the pond hockey,” Stafford said. “More north-south and using the speed. ... Hitting the [blue] line with more speed, getting it in and going to get it ourselves instead trying to slow it up, make moves at the blue line that are just going to cause turnovers.
“The last two games, it hasn’t been real good hockey,” Ruff said, citing the 6-3 and 3-1 losses to the Hurricanes. “Let’s not kid ourselves. Turnovers, and turnovers by a lot of our key personnel. The short-handed goal [Thursday] was a careless turnover. We had a 3-on-0 against us with a couple big saves. You can’t play like that. You have to take care of the puck.”
Ruff said Friday he didn’t want to break up the Foligno-Ennis-Stafford line, which ended last season as one of the best in the NHL. But the complete lack of production — no goals for any of them — forced his hand.
“It’s just tough right now,” Foligno said. “Obviously we’re disappointed we’re not having the best start. But we believe in each other, believe we can get it done. We just have to keep working hard and the bounces will come.”
“We want our players to make plays,” Ruff said. “You’ve got space to make a play, make it. If the opposition is doing a good job, you go to Plan B — and that’s put them under duress.”