The Buffalo Sabres really can't complain too much because, for the better part of two seasons in the new-and-improved NHL, they had been playing with a stacked deck. No team more than Buffalo was prepared for rule changes that encouraged high-flying hockey from the good old days.
Lindy Ruff's troops included skilled and speedy forwards who were destined to thrive in a post-lockout league desperate for scoring and excitement. Their defense corps was among the most mobile, allowing them many a shift on many a night to throw five of a kind against teams stuck with seven-deuce off-suit.
The results: predictable.
Last season, Buffalo's whiz kids won the Presidents' Trophy, led the league with 308 goals and raced into the Eastern Conference finals for the second straight year. Just six months later, the league has caught up with the Sabres, and they have fallen back to the league. Their 5-7-1 record has shown a vulnerable team to be sure.
The Sabres still have talent but five of a kind has become genuinely unkind this season. They have been stifled by their own play and not-so-subtle changes in a league that has returned to tight checking and close quarters. Teams are intent on buckling down on defense and exploiting teams relying too much on skating alone.
"The message is there," Ruff said after practice Tuesday. "You watched the playoffs. You saw how tight it got, and the scoring chances got fewer and fewer. Coaches are pretty good at looking at video and wondering what's going on and [experimenting]. There is a little bit of a trend developing."
The Sabres enter their game against the Boston Bruins tonight in HSBC Arena looking to reverse a few trends. The Bruins have allowed just 32 goals in 13 games and scored the same number. Buffalo has been shut out twice this season, including Monday night in Montreal, and has scored two or fewer goals four times in its previous five losses.
Buffalo tonight will be without center Tim Connolly (ribs), Adam Mair (ankle), regular defensemen Dmitri Kalinin (knee), Jaroslav Spacek (shoulder) and newcomer Nolan Pratt (groin). Through injuries and malfunction, the Sabres are adjusting to a style that calls for more discipline and less dazzle.
It could mean more Drew Stafford, less Maxim Afinogenov.
Ruff moved Stafford alongside center Derek Roy and winger Thomas Vanek in an effort Monday to add muscle to his top line and gain balance across four lines. One side effect from the shuffle was all three players making short passes, which created scoring chances that were limited when Roy and Vanek played with Afinogenov.
"[Stafford] brings a simple-ness," Roy said. "He's easy to read. You move the puck and get open. Obviously, with the game changing, you're going to have to chip pucks deep and skate after them. There's a lot less dangle at the blue line for every team. Every team you see now is chipping pucks in deep, getting in a good rhythm and getting a good forecheck going. Systems are huge in this league now."
Afinogenov, talented but equally unpredictable, has more turnovers than highlight-reel plays this season. It has contributed to his minus-6 rating, tied for worst on the team with rookie defenseman Andrej Sekera. Twice, Afinogenov lured his own linemates offside against the Habs. He has three goals and five points.
Stafford doesn't possess the same gifts, but the Sabres can depend on him to get the puck deep, work corners and play defense. He made a heady chip pass to Vanek that resulted in a good chance Monday. Afinogenov will likely play with center Paul Gaustad and winger Ales Kotalik, giving that line more skill.
This is a good opportunity for Stafford, who played a season-high 15 minutes, 49 seconds and had five shots on goal in Montreal, to become more productive. He has just two goals and four points in the first 13 games while getting bounced between lines. Last season, he had 13 goals and 27 points in 41 games.
Ruff made it clear that Connolly suffered a strained oblique muscle near his rib cage, not a concussion, in the closing minute against the Canadiens. The injury could keep Connolly on the sidelines for several games, but Ruff did not believe it was serious.
Mair could be gone for several weeks with a sprained ankle. Sekera suffered a hand injury but practiced Monday. Roy, Jason Pominville, Jochen Hecht, Brian Campbell, Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman were given the day off to rest.
The Sabres could call up at least one forward from Rochester, likely Clarke MacArthur or Dylan Hunter. MacArthur was leading the AHL in scoring with 10 goals and 18 points through 14 games. Hunter on Monday was named the AHL player of the week after posting seven points in three games.