The questions were raised again Tuesday night after the Detroit Red Wings' 8-3 rout of the Buffalo Sabres at Joe Louis Arena. Is the coach to blame? Are the players to blame? Or is this just a passing hurricane?
The loss was the Sabres' third straight and dropped their December record to 1-4-1. A team with Stanley Cup designs, Buffalo ranks fourth in the Adams Division, three points behind Hartford.
Tuesday's defeat was inflicted quickly and thoroughly. The Red Wings, given free reign from goal line to goal line, scored five second-period goals off helpless Clint Malarchuk.
Detroit led 6-0 before Alexander Mogilny answered for Buffalo with 20 seconds left in the second period. The Red Wings made it 8-1 against backup goaltender Darcy Wakaluk before Rick Vaive and Mike Foligno narrowed the chasm of embarrassment.
Steve Yzerman had two goals and five points for the Wings. John Chabot also had two goals, while Paul Ysebaert, Keith Primeau, Gerard Gallant and Jimmy Carson added singles.
Detroit's five-goal second period was a shocking replay of Boston's two-goal first period in Sunday's 3-2 loss at the Aud. The Sabres were outworked and outmuscled by the widest of margins.
"It was the same thing exactly because . . . in the pregame skate I'd have bet money we were coming out strong," said Sabres coach Rick Dudley.
"I thought we were too," said Malarchuk. "We had a meeting yesterday. Yesterday was a day of meetings and today we were very positive.
"The morning skate was great," Malarchuk said. "This morning guys were real positive, upbeat, very up. I think we all felt good. But we didn't come out like we were ready at all. We didn't look like we were ready to play."
Dudley doesn't know where to turn. Never in his tenure as a professional coach has he encountered a team so difficult to motivate.
"I don't know, what do I say?," Dudley asked. "For the first time in my life I've had a team that doesn't seem to want to work for me. Maybe they do, maybe they don't; they don't appear to. I've coached for nine years. I've never had anything like this."
If the players believe the coaching staff is to blame they are keeping their thoughts to themselves.
"I believe we're prepared," said Dean Kennedy. "It's a complex situation. We got a lot of talent here, but talent may as well stay on the shelf if you don't do your job and work hard.
"Some nights we've got guys who are going hard, and the next night we got other guys who are going hard. I don't know. It's just frustrating as hell."
Added Dale Hawerchuk, "We got to learn how to pay the price to win, and we're not paying the price right now."
The Sabres should have paid admission during the second period. Yzerman scored at 20 seconds and 4:33. Chabot scored at 12:07 and 16:33. And Primeau, a product of the Niagara Falls Thunder, netted the first of his career at 17:02.
"We weren't patient, we didn't hit anybody, everything just fell apart," Kennedy said. "In the second period we weren't working hard, we weren't jumping, we weren't getting on their 'D', forcing them to move the puck quick. We were standing still looking around and then they were by us and we realized we better get our butts back. The first period wasn't a bad period on our part. After that, things just went to pot."
And when these Sabres go to pot, they do it with a flourish.
"When we get behind we're a bad team," Dudley said. "When we get behind a lot we're a real bad team. That's not the first time it's happened this year.
"Every time they had a rush they almost scored on it because we were caught up ice so many times. And that is something I have no explanation for. That's not our style really. We're quite a conservative team."
Dudley can only speculate on the reasons.
"Maybe they were too high before the game," he said. "Maybe we wanted it too much and tried to do too much, because I thought this was a really focused team before the game and I thought we were going to come out with a big performance. We didn't."
The Sabres get a chance to reorganize tonight under less demanding conditions. They'll face Soviet Khimik in Memorial Auditorium as part of the 1990-91 exhibition Super Series (7:35, WGR).
"I wish we were playing a real game, a game that counts," said Christian Ruuttu. "I'd rather get right back at it. I think everybody feels that way."