NEW YORK – The Sabres said it themselves. The stretch right before Christmas could define them.
It sure has. They’re a last-place team.
A nice run was supposed to bring Buffalo back toward the playoff pack and send the team into the holiday as an Eastern Conference hopeful. The hope tank is pretty low, as old coach Lindy Ruff used to say.
The Sabres closed the pre-Christmas schedule with another disheartening loss, this time a 5-1 beatdown at the hands of the New York Islanders. The teams are tied for the fewest points in the Eastern Conference, not the spot Buffalo had in mind when it focused on the schedule six games ago.
“We had six games, 12 points before the break here and ended up with six,” coach Dan Bylsma said in Barclays Center. “It’s .500 hockey, but it feels a lot more disappointing than that.”
It sure does. After winning the opening two games of the stretch, Buffalo went 0-2-2 in the last four and scored just one goal in three of them.
“We talked about picking up those points,” defenseman Zach Bogosian said. “I thought on the road trip we lost some points. We’d gotten to overtime, but I thought should have won. Our goal was to win those games. We didn’t necessarily put ourselves in the greatest position to do that.”
There’s a clear disconnect inside the Sabres. What’s said and what’s done are opposite. The organization needs to determine if it’s a coaching problem, the wrong players or – worst-case scenario – a combination of both.
“It’s really disappointing,” captain Brian Gionta said. “We continue to try to be a different team than we need to be to be successful. We need to be direct. We need to be north with the puck. We need to support it with speed.
“We generate a lot from our forecheck. We generate a lot from working teams down low in the offensive zone. That’s how we get a lot of our opportunities. We’re not a neutral-zone team that creates chances out there. When we get fancy, we turn pucks over and it’s odd-man rushes.”
The Sabres laid nearly all of the blame for Friday’s loss on puck management. Officially, there were six giveaways by the Sabres and 17 takeaways by the Islanders.
“I don’t know how many odd-man rushes they had,” Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons said. “If we figure out puck management, we’ll be better.”
Though the inability to make a pass is a major problem, the Sabres have others. They’re a passive team. They usually don’t get warmed up until they’re in a hole.
The only things they warmed up Friday were the bus and Bylsma’s seat.
“Our game is predicated on the puck going north and the puck going in the offensive zone with execution,” Bylsma said. “When we’re playing good and we’re on our game, we manage the puck well, we keep going north, getting to the offensive zone and play there.
“We didn’t do that at all and turned the puck over against good players and gave them opportunities.”
The Sabres were a step or three behind the Islanders all night.
“It’s execution with the puck,” Gionta said. “That’s why it looks like it’s a lack of team speed.”
It’s not just one night, though. The Sabres have looked terrible too often, with and without their full lineup.
It’ll be a Christmas miracle if they return from their three-day break as a reinvented team.
“When it rains, it pours,” Bogosian said. “You can hang your head and sulk and be negative all you want, talk and say whatever you want. At the end of the day, I think if we all come back from the break with a fresh attitude and maybe a different outlook on a few things, we’ll go from there.”