There were so many problems with the product on the ice when Ted Nolan took over as interim coach, the question wasn’t what to fix but where to begin.
The starting point was the defensive zone.
While the Sabres continue to struggle to find the back of the net and produce offense, that defensive zone coverage has improved and is a reason why the Sabres are starting to pick up points.
In the last seven games, Buffalo has collected four points. The Sabres have cut down on opponents’ shots on goals with the opposition averaging 27 shots over the last seven, down from averages that soared above 36 earlier in the season.
In the last three games the Sabres have given up only four goals in regulation.
Slowly but surely defensive zone play is improving and is putting the Sabres in positions to win games.
They will have another opportunity to try and turn good defense into a regulation win tonight when they host the Winnipeg Jets in First Niagara Center.
“I think it’s pretty simple. I think as a five-man unit we’re just helping each other out so much more than we were before,” said defenseman Tyler Myers. “We’re talking to each other, letting each other know what options there are and then we’re executing. I think the communication has been a lot better. All the guys have really noticed it in the D-zone. We’re making crisp plays. There’s always room for improvement but it’s definitely a better feeling.”
Among the points of emphasis for Nolan has been communication, trust and accountability. As the defensive corps is starting to look like it has some depth, the forwards are taking better care of their responsibilities in their own end.
“I think guys just are on the same page, communicating a lot more.” said forward Cody Hodgson. “There are reads in-game that once things break down, it’s tough to compensate for unless you’re talking to each other. I think we’re doing a lot better job talking and working together.”
The more you talk, the better your defensive coverage and the fewer times your goaltenders will have to bail you out. While Ryan Miller has been consistently solid for the Sabres this season, a better overall defensive game has helped to take off some of the burden.
“We were forcing our goalies to make a lot of saves with some primetime opportunities for the other team.,” said forward Matt Moulson. “They still make big saves for us now but I think we’ve limited those very high quality scoring chances. I think it’s everyone doing their job, being responsible for their coverage and guys talking out there.”
While the forwards are getting better at their defensive responsibilities, the defensive corps continues to be big. With Alexander Sulzer expected back from injured reserve, the Sabres will have eight healthy defensemen on the roster. That means two will find themselves as healthy scratches, pending roster moves. In the last few games Mark Pysyk, Brayden McNabb and Mike Weber have spent time in the press box.
“We want to make sure it’s a competitive lineup,” Nolan said. “We want to make sure that guys who are in it want to stay in it and guys who are out of it want to fight to get in it. It’s not really a rotation, it’s just some guys continue to have little rough ones and we have to replace them. Until we find that consistent effort, it will stay the same.”