The Buffalo Sabres had spent most of the season on a historic pace for goal-scoring futility, getting shut out or tallying just once in 21 of their first 43 games. Now they have a new problem.
Things have gotten much better of late as the Sabres have put up five straight three-goal outputs. And they’ve had the lead 10 different times over that stretch. But they simply can’t stand prosperity when they get in front.
The Sabres are 0-3-2 in the five games, and Thursday’s 5-3 loss to Carolina was the latest washout effort. Buffalo had a trio of one-goal leads before caving in as the Hurricanes scored three times in the final 12½ minutes.
“That’s why they pay those guys in baseball such big money to come in for the bottom of the ninth and close the game,” Sabres center Zenon Konopka said Friday. “The best players in the world close games. It will take time with the young guys in here but we have to understand this isn’t good enough. We keep improving and that’s good but we can’t fool ourselves to think it’s good enough.”
“It’s just different plays happening at different times,” added defenseman Christian Ehrhoff. “A turnover here, a lost battle there, a tipped puck and it seems like it’s ending up in our net. We have to put our focus on cleaning up those areas. You have to learn to play with the lead.”
Among their many lowlight statistics this season is the fact the Sabres are just 3-7-5 when scoring the first goal. They’ve done that in four of the five games in this stretch, including last Saturday’s shootout loss to Columbus – the team Buffalo meets tonight in Nationwide Arena.
Through Thursday’s games, NHL teams have won 68.2 percent of the time when they’ve scored first. The Sabres’ record, meanwhile, translates to success just 20 percent of the time.
The New York Islanders (9-7-5, .429) and Edmonton (8-9-4, .381) are the only other teams not winning at least 50 percent of the time when scoring first.
Columbus is 20-7-3 in those spots while the Pittsburgh Penguins, Monday’s opponent in Consol Energy Center, are winning at an NHL-best .897 clip with a record of 26-2-1.
The Sabres scored first just twice in 20 games under Ron Rolston, going 0-1-1. They’ve done it in 13 of the 29 games under Ted Nolan but are just 3-6-4.
“It’s a lot to do with paying attention to details,” Nolan said. “Sometimes we get the one goal and all of a sudden we’re feeling a little better about the offensive side of our game and we’re taking chances that we shouldn’t take.
“You look at a bunch of tapes and guys are trying to go for the ‘stretch’ pass now. Before they weren’t. It’s a combination of getting here and all of a sudden we’ve got to pull them back here and find a balance in between.”
Everything is perfectly in balance for Columbus, which has bolted to a franchise-record, eight-game winning streak and should have a roaring sellout crowd rooting on its behalf tonight.
Previous Buffalo trips have resulted in many Sabres fans filling the building so the balance will be interesting to watch tonight.
“Those poor fans have been there for that team through thick and thin, a lot of misery, a lot of rebuilding,” said Konopka, who played for Columbus and its AHL affiliate in Syracuse from 2006-2008. “So I feel really good about them getting a winner there. The fans have paid their dues.
“They’re starving for a winner there. Just starving. The team works hard. They have an identity and they stick to it. That’s something we need to take a look at and understand that teams like that have to bring it every night and they do. That’s an area we have to get better at.”
“They are probably at an all-time high right now, feeling good and having a lot of confidence,” added Ehrhoff, a regular Jackets opponent when they were in the Western Conference and he was in San Jose and Vancouver. “They’re going to be coming hard at the start. We have to make sure we’re ready and outwork them.”
The Sabres have sent defenseman Mark Pysyk to Rochester so he can keep playing during the Olympic break. Under CBA rules in place for the Olympic year, the deadline to send Pysyk to the AHL for the break was 5 p.m. Friday.
Pysyk, who did not practice again Friday because he’s nursing an undisclosed injury, has one goal and six points in 42 games for the Sabres this year. While the Sabres’ pre-Olympic schedule ends Feb. 6 in Ottawa and doesn’t resume until the Feb. 25 makeup game against Carolina, the Amerks have eight games in that stretch and there’s basically no travel involved.
Six of the games are in Blue Cross Arena, one is in Utica and there’s a Feb. 8 game against defending Calder Cup champion Grand Rapids that’s in First Niagara Center.
The Sabres also announced they recalled defenseman Chad Ruhwedel. Ruhwedel leads all Amerks defensemen with four goals and 17 points. He did not play in any games with the Sabres when he was recalled by the club in December.
Center Tyler Ennis also did not practice Friday. Nolan said Ennis, on a career-high six-game point streak, was simply taking a maintenance day and will play tonight.