CHICAGO — Things may seem hopeless right now in Sabreland but they warned you. General Manager Darcy Regier said all the way back in May that “suffering” would be required and he’s been proven brutally right so far.
The Sabres are 0-5-1 after Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks before 21,261 in United Center. They are one game away from tying the 1990 and 1999 clubs for their longest winless start to a season.
They have led in just one of those six games for a mere total of 9 minutes, 35 seconds. They have the fewest number of points and the fewest goals in the NHL – with their six tallies tying with the 1970 expansionites for their lowest total in the first six games of any season.
“Guys are going to have to finish at the end of the day,” coach Ron Rolston said of his team’s scoring chances. “That’s it.”
Drew Stafford was the only one who did, getting his first of the season at 11:49 of the third period to cut a 2-0 deficit in half and put the teams in scramble mode the rest of the way. Buffalo outshot the Hawks, 13-3, in the third period and 23-20 over the final 40 minutes after the Hawks had a huge 20-6 advantage in the first period.
It’s strange to think the Blackhawks, of all teams, know all about these kind of struggles, too. They’ve won two Stanley Cups in the last four years and hosted their 231st consecutive sellout Saturday – but it wasn’t long ago that they were suffering as much as any franchise in the NHL.
From 1997 to 2008, the Hawks qualified for the playoffs just one time and won only one postseason game. And that just extended a run of misery that left them without a Stanley Cup since 1961 and turned hockey into a bottom-barrel activity in Chicago.
It started to change when Jonathan Toews was drafted with No. 3 overall pick in 2006. Then came South Buffalo’s Patrick Kane, taken No. 1 overall in 2007. The seeds of success were initially planted with the drafting of Duncan Keith (2002), Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford and Dustin Byfuglien (all 2003).
“We had some things in place before myself and Jonny came in,” Kane said here Saturday afternoon. “There were guys like Seabrook and Keith and Patrick Sharp was here. They went through it even more than we did. When you’re young, you’re excited about playing in the NHL and being here. As time goes past, I think you realize you have a good opportunity with some skilled guys to do something special.”
The Hawks lost 10 in a row at one point in the 2005-06 season. They had losing streaks of eight and 10 games during Kane’s rookie year, at one point posting just two regulation wins in a 19-game stretch.
“It was fun for us to grow as a team,” Kane said. “To see each other mature the past few years and see what we can do on and off the ice. It’s been a fun group to be around, kind of like a band of brothers now where you grew up together. It’s fun that we’re still together on the same team.”
Sabres enforcer John Scott had an inside view of the Hawks for two seasons as he played here from 2010 ro 2012, joining the club as a free agent after it won its first Cup.
“Toews and Kane were already superstars but they had young guys coming along to take the next step to solidify the team,” recalled Scott, who played a year of junior hockey in Chicago during the middle of the Hawks’ down years. “They’re one of the organizations you try to model yourself after now.
“A few down years, you get some draft picks and next thing you know you’ve got a whole franchise and who knows what with these guys. It might be three, four, five Cups. It’s cool to see the turnaround. It’s nice to see the city embrace them and get behind the Hawks. When I was growing up, the Hawks were terrible.”
Now the Hawks are a veteran team full of swagger. They did just enough Saturday, getting a tip-in goal from Ben Smith in the first period and a power-play tally from Kane with 24.9 seconds left in the second. It was all they could muster during a spectacular 38-save night from Ryan Miller, who is 0-4 despite a 2.29 goals-against average and .941 save percentage.
“We’re going to have to earn our goals and find ways to score,” Miller said. “If you’re not scoring the traditional way, you’ve got to find, new unique ways.”
“Just from talking to him over the summer, I think he’s out to prove his worth and that he’s a top-notch goaltender in the league,” Kane said. “I think he’s going to be facing a lot of pucks every night playing for a team like Buffalo and a young group like that that probably doesn’t have too much experience. I thought he kept them in the game tonight and gave them a shot.”