Jon Cooper wasn’t looking for sympathy Thursday when he arrived with his team for the morning skate in KeyBank Center. It was just as well because he certainly wasn’t getting any in Buffalo, where empathy has been in short supply given the injuries riddling the Sabres all season.
Cooper knows the drill. Three years ago this month, in his first full season as an NHL coach, he stood behind the Tampa Bay bench and watched Steven Stamkos get carried away on a stretcher. The superstar, tied for the NHL scoring lead through 17 games, was sidelined for four months in 2013-14 with a broken leg.
“I was a brand new coach,” Cooper said. “To watch your best player go down, you’re wallowing in self-pity and you’re so uncertain about everything.”
Cooper was certain about one thing: The season would continue with or without Stamkos. The Lightning soldiered forward without their co-captain and finished second in the Atlantic Division. They reached the postseason. They came away from the ordeal with better chemistry and a thicker backbone. They survived.
Symmetry can be cruel in sports, however.
Stamkos was tied for the NHL scoring lead with 20 points (nine goals) through 17 games this year when he suffered a torn lateral meniscus Tuesday in Detroit. He'll be sidelined four to six months after surgery, but you didn’t hear anyone in his dressing room crying over him.
Cooper barely blinked Thursday while preparing his team for Buffalo. He talked about Stamkos coming back for the postseason, saying he would be better than any player available at the trade deadline. His collection of experienced and confident players tossed around the word “challenge” like dirty socks.
“You have to take your head of out the sand, dig your heels in and march on,” Cooper said. “Unfortunately, this has happened to us before, and the guys found a way. We have to look at this as a challenge. Ultimately, we have to find a way to get ourselves in the playoffs. That’s it.”
Sounds like a winning mentality, wouldn’t you say?
How refreshing it would be if the Sabres adopted the same mentality after moping through most of the first 18 games. Sure, they had tough luck. It cannot be disputed and should not be overlooked. Eichel’s high-ankle sprain left them physically shorthanded and emotionally shaken, a fragile team to be sure.
Buffalo certainly didn’t embrace the challenge after Eichel landed on the shelf the way Tampa Bay did Thursday after losing Stamkos. The Sabres braced for doomsday after losing their star. The dressing room was devastated, and the community mourned, as if they couldn’t catch a break from the hockey gods.
The Sabres’ winless streak was extended to six games Thursday after their 4-1 loss to the Lightning in the KeyBank Center Funeral Home. Buffalo is 0-4-2 over that stretch and has won only five games this season. The Sabres failed to score more than one goal for the ninth time in 17 games this season.
That’s not bad luck, folks. It's bad, period.
Ben Bishop played well for the Lightning in goal Thursday, but the Sabres helped him with their inability to convert scoring chances. Kyle Okposo and Sam Reinhart had open nets and failed to bury their opportunities. Evander Kane skated around, missed one good scoring chance and accomplished nothing.
Blame injuries if you wish, but that’s not the only reason for their dreadful start. Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly didn’t score every goal last season, after all. The Sabres have nine goals over their past eight games. Either players aren't doing their jobs or the man who assembled them, GM Tim Murray, isn't doing his.
No wonder KeyBank Center had as much energy Thursday night as it did Thursday morning, other than about 5,000 fans who remained until the final horn and booed them off the ice. Tampa Bay’s 2-0 lead was interrupted by Cody Franson, who scored the first goal of the season by a Sabres’ defenseman. Nikita Kucherov gave the Bolts a 3-1 lead late in the second period, and the Sabres were cooked.
“That’s what happens when a group has confidence," Kane said of the Lightning after the game. "It doesn’t matter who they have in the lineup. There’s no excuse why that isn’t our attitude in this room. We’ve played all year without guys in the lineup. It shouldn’t be anything new to us.”
The Sabres say all the right things, but anybody can see they’re going nowhere until they wipe the blood from their noses and get back into the fight. I’ve been around the NHL long enough to detect the vibe separating a Tampa Bay team that’s determined to reach the playoffs from a Buffalo team that hopes everything falls into place.
Tampa Bay should be held up as a case study for Buffalo. GM Steve Yzerman built his roster mostly through the draft, but it’s decorated with players acquired through trades and signed in free agency. He has creative and speedy forwards, a solid blue defense corps led by Viktor Hedman and oversized goaltender in Bishop.
The Bolts aren’t some one-man show. They were prepared to absorb a major injury to their best player and captain. Stamkos started fast after helping Canada win the World Cup. Cooper said he was at the top of his game this season. But they were hardly reeling in their first game since his injury.
It was the opposite.
They were upbeat and energized because they believed in one another. They talked about coming together to make up for Stamkos. They wanted to reaffirm that their ride into the conference finals last season without him wasn’t some fluke.
“The good teams find a way to win when their good guys are out,” Ryan Callahan said. “Nobody else in the league feels bad for us. We’re not going to feel bad for ourselves. We’re going to continue to go about our business. We’re going to miss him, but we still have to find a way to win games and keep going.”
It was the plan all along, which is why Yzerman stood firm last season after offering Stamkos $8.5 million per season. The Sabres were among several teams prepared to overpay him before he re-signed with Tampa Bay for eight years and $68 million.
The Bolts were moving forward with or without their franchise player. The Sabres have been waiting for their franchise player to come back. They're not getting any sympathy.