It goes by many names. Call it faith. Call it trust. Call it support.
Whatever description you use, the Buffalo Sabres have lacked it. And for interim coach Ted Nolan, it’s been an indication of the root problems – communication and consistency.
“There’s glimpses of playing well and then we collapse. … Right now, I don’t think we have too much faith in one another and we have to work on that,” Nolan said as his team prepared to host the Montreal Canadiens at First Niagara Center tonight.
“That’s one of the symptoms of the problem. I think having faith in one another and support – it all comes down to communication. If you don’t talk, you don’t know who has who. Even if there are 17,000 people in the rink, you should be able to hear your defensemen calling out who has who. We’ve just got to be louder. Our communication has to be much better.”
If you want to see if teammates have faith in each other, check out their play in the defensive zone. That’s where players tend to press and second-guess themselves and each other.
The Sabres have struggled all season to be consistent in their own zone. The problem comes when a player decides to help out a teammate, one that doesn’t necessarily need to be helped, leaving opponents open for scoring opportunities. More often than not, the opposition is cashing in.
“In the D-zone you have to have trust that your teammate is going to do the right job and do his job well,” Sabres captain Steve Ott said. “When you see a lack of trust it means there’s duplicate work going on. … You really have to focus on letting the guy do his job and supporting him properly instead of running in there because once you run in there with double coverage, you blow coverage and leave somebody else open.”
Cody Hodgson explains the trust factor as part of building speed into the game, making your team difficult for opponents to play against. It’s part instinctual and part acquired habit.
“Any time you have trust in guys, it builds speed in the game,” Hodgson said. “You almost know what a guy is going to do with it before he gets the puck. You can already start doing your job because you can count on the other guy to do the easier play. … It’s just being consistent and knowing what your teammate is going to do. You anticipate that from repetition and doing it over and over again.”
Trust also helps build chemistry, something that isn’t just needed among linemates and between defensive pairs. That chemistry needs to be fluid so that the unit on the ice at any given time can work together. And while it may be easy to point to the Sabres’ lack of offense (they are last in the league in goals scored with 44), the real key to turning the tide in Buffalo begins in the Sabres’ own zone.
“Offense, obviously, can be a sometimes thing but defense you have to have every game,” Ott said. “You have to be sound in those positions. And scoring goals, it should come. We’re all offensively capable of doing so, we’re creating plays but defense is not a sometimes job. It’s an everyday battle and you have to be good at it. The good teams in this league are usually strong defensive teams that find a way to score from there.”
The last two days of practice have focused a lot on defensive zone play and on communication. Nolan said that it’s not growing by leaps and bounds, but that he sees it growing every day.
Ott sees it, too, and understands the importance of sticking with the process and using practices to get better bit by bit.
“It’s not going to be a two-day miracle job to be a defensively sound team,” Ott said. “We have to do it daily and continue to work and hopefully continue to see progress throughout weeks.”