CALGARY, Alberta – The Buffalo Sabres were pretty full of themselves Saturday morning when they flew to Western Canada but they actually had good reason to be. A brutal November schedule was over, a 3-0-1 stretch was getting December kick-started and a climb over .500 seemed imminent with a roadie against three struggling clubs from the Pacific Division.
But after back-to-back stinkers in Edmonton and Vancouver, the mood has changed. The uncertainty is growing. Fans on social media are growling and there’s grumpiness all through the dressing room. And it says here that’s a good thing. Part of this rebuild had to include a massive culture change and we’re seeing a key crossroads moment.
Losing is not cool.
Imagine that. What a novel concept for this organization.
If you slept through Monday’s late-night affair in Vancouver, you didn’t miss much on the ice during Buffalo’s 5-2 loss to a Canucks team that was in complete crisis until the Sabres hit town. You did, however, miss a major moment during a second-period television timeout that could become one of those remember-when items someday.
The players gathered at the bench but instead of listening to Dan Bylsma and his staff, the coaches stood back with their arms folded silently in front of them. Ryan O’Reilly demanded the floor and he got it. O’Reilly, who is pretty much the de facto captain of this team now and is almost certain to be the real one someday soon, was not happy.
He delivered a quick and stern rebuke.
“ ‘Just take a deep breath and get back to being there for each other,’ ” O’Reilly said when asked what his message was. “You could tell to a man we were so frustrated and didn’t know what to do. We needed to change something. I felt we came out in the third period with the right mentality and started to get some momentum.”
When I asked Bylsma if he had consciously stepped out of the way when he noticed O’Reilly wanted to speak, the coach simply smiled and said, “That’s what was happening. Yes.”
O’Reilly wasn’t here through the tank days of the last two years but plenty of these players were. And even though he’s still only 24, O’Reilly is a six-year veteran in the NHL. To him, any old habits have to go away quickly.
“I think we’re learning about everything,” O’Reilly said. “The team last year had a losing mentality and we’re still trying to find that constant thing, having no casual moments. Teams that consistently make playoffs, there’s never casual moments. They’re on every night. We have to find that. These last two games weren’t consistent enough. It’s a big lesson that if we want to have success, we have to have that going forward.”
The Sabres took their CBA-mandated day off Tuesday and will return to the practice ice Wednesday to prep for Thursday’s game against the Calgary Flames in the Saddledome. They have a lot to ponder. Starting with O’Reilly’s words.
“He’s the guy that guys kind of look up to, that is going to be the leader and will say something right away,” said Sam Reinhart, who is clearly blossoming as an NHL player in his second season. “If he’s saying something, guys are going to listen and learn from that. He does it by how he plays, how he practices day in and day out.”
That’s a pretty big endorsement. Reinhart, who scored his eighth goal of the season Monday, is one behind O’Reilly and Jack Eichel for the team lead. And he’s bought into O’Reilly’s incredible post-practice regimen of staying on the ice for extra work.
The Sabres started the trip just five points out of a wild-card playoff berth. They entered Tuesday just six back but are now looking behind them to some sobering realities. It’s not impossible to play out scenarios of other teams schedules and see the Sabres hosting the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night trying to stay out of last place overall.
Weren’t the days of 30th supposed to be over?
Still, the optics seem good in the room. The eyes of captain Brian Gionta and veteran defenseman Josh Gorges, both of whom know a lot of about playoff hockey, flare after defeats. Jack Eichel sat at locker with most of his equipment on for several minutes Monday, long after many teammates had left the room. Eichel takes losses hard, especially when they come in games such as Monday when his own game doesn’t produce much.
“It’s really tough, really disappointing,” Gionta said. “We want better within this room and we know we’re capable of that. That’s why it’s so disappointing.”
You think Evander Kane is sick of losing? He’s never played a playoff game in his career after being nothing but a winner in junior hockey. Clearly healthy now, Kane has been a beast of late. In Monday’s game, he had 11 shot attempts (six on goal) and was credited with nine hits while playing 22:05, most among the forwards. Jamie McGinn is playing contract-year hockey, with a career-high point streak at six games.
The Sabres’ shot totals and Corsi ratings have dropped the last few games and the loss of injured defenseman Mark Pysyk, who always makes the right pass out of the defensive zone, has been a huge reason why.
The Sabres are thin on defense, rookie goaltender Linus Ullmark is playing his way back to Rochester when Robin Lehner is ready to return and their bottom two lines are giving them just about nothing. The fourth line (Nic Deslauriers, David Legwand and Marcus Foligno) was minus-2 in the first period Monday and Matt Moulson still doesn’t have a goal since Nov. 1. He played a season-low 11:07 on Monday.
For his part, Bylsma is probably going to juggle some lines at Wednesday’s practice and he has to find an answer for Buffalo’s first-period woes.
The Sabres have scored the first goal on this trip in both games but given up five before the buzzer sounded to mark the first intermission. They’ve been outscored, 26-13, in the opening 20 minutes, tied with Philadelphia for the worst differential and second to Winnipeg in goals allowed. In periods 2-3, the Sabres are a combined plus-3.
“It’s real disappointing,” Bylsma said. “You look at it as a tough road trip to go out West. But Edmonton, Vancouver and going into Calgary, you’re talking about winning hockey games. And in the end, we’ve missed that opportunity.”