Just owning the lead is progress for Sabres - The Buffalo News

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Just owning the lead is progress for Sabres

The Sabres are so overmatched most nights, they have no choice but to take baby steps through their season, and it’s fairly obvious where Ted Nolan is having an impact. There’s more teaching on the ice in practice in a single day than there was in weeks under Ron Rolston. So it’s no shock they’re much better prepared to start games.

After scoring first just twice in their first 22 games (20 of those under Rolston), they’ve done it three times in a row under Nolan. But that’s where the happy progress report ends.

Three straight first goals and nothing else. Three straight one-goal outputs. Three straight losses.

“You have to make it count in this league,” was goaltender Ryan Miller’s succinct analysis after Sunday’s 3-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings. “You can’t just be satisfied with a little glimmer of what we feel is the right way to play. We have to not let teams back in the game.”

Having a lead is certainly a different look for the Sabres. Hey, did someone say different look? That was certainly a side show to Sunday’s proceedings. We pause from hockey talk for a moment to review the club’s fashion faux pas that made its on-ice debut.

The new jerseys that President Ted Black famously admitted last month on a radio interview might sell like “turd burgers” are actually not as bad in person as I expected, based on the torrent of criticism that’s been unleashed upon them.

Internet guffaws were heard across North America when they were unveiled in September with that ridiculous staged Twitter spat between captain Steve Ott and the team’s official feed.

From the rear, the all-blue look actually isn’t bad. Of course, from the front they’re all gold and that makes for a hideous two-tone monstrosity.

And there should be a law outlawing moving the captain’s “C” and alternates’ “A” to the shoulder and off the front of the sweater. The things are bad enough that they shouldn’t trample on the tradition of the sport altogether.

But tradition doesn’t seem to hold much weight with the Sabres anyway. During a first-period timeout trivia contest, the team twice announced an answer as Bill “HATE.” Of course, that’s not to be confused with Bill “HEIGHT” (spelled Hajt).

The guy only played 854 games here, was a mainstay on the 1975 Stanley Cup finalists and has lived in town for nearly 40 years. But the entertainment department butchered that one as much as the club’s alleged “creative services” division showed less than zero creative juices with the dud of a new dud.

It’s always something in Sabreland.

At this point, I could say the Sabres played as they looked but that would be unfair. At least they’re showing a little spunk at the start and not just throwing their sticks on the ice.

“It’s nice to play with the lead, that’s for sure,” said Ott. “The whole season we haven’t really had that chance to lead very many games. We did today to start but we finished poorly.”

“We’re figuring one issue at a time. I wish we could do it all together,” said Cody Hodgson, whose slick stickwork produced the only goal. “There’s a definite difference in the way we’re playing. We have a lot more energy.”

That was true for the first 35 minutes Thursday night in Philadelphia and the Sabres seemed to be coming on at the end of the second period Sunday.

But the third period was a colossal disappointment. With the Wings in their third game in four nights – and especially coming off a physical home loss Saturday night against Ottawa – you would have thought the Sabres would have had a big edge in energy.

It didn’t happen. The Wings showed their experience and the Sabres showed their fragility. Again. You can’t just take penalties in this league. The Sabres did it twice in the third.

The winning goal came with Tyler Myers in the penalty box after he plowed into Justin Abdelkader in front of the Buffalo net. A clear cross check. An easy call. Nolan said it’s a call losing teams get made against them all the time. He’s right.

The Sabres are struggling to kill penalties of late. And the parade to the box jumbles your lines to the point your scorers who don’t play on special teams don’t see the ice much. The best way to kill is to stay out of the box. I love how aggressive Myers has looked with the puck and how he’s jumping into the play. But Nolan promised ice time could be lost if penalties continue. Bears watching.

What has been there to like lately? Nolan loves 19-year-old Zemgus Girgensons, and with good reason. Defenseman Brayden McNabb unleashed a couple of hits and was strong enough for the second straight game Sunday that it left you wondering what the heck Darcy Regier and Rolston were looking at to chain him in Rochester.

Still, I come back to the numbers. The Sabres have been outscored, 31-6, in the first period this season – with the minus-25 differential by far the most by any NHL team in any stanza this season. They’ve scored first five times and are 0-4-1 in those games. They’ve now led after one period two straight games. And they’re 0-2. When trailing after two, they’re 0-16. Seriously.

What’s the next baby step? Go from a 1-0 lead to 2-0. Imagine what that would feel like.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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