For nearly 10 years, Ryan Miller was the one guy in the Buffalo Sabres’ dressing room who could best dissect his team’s play – as well as burn his teammates’ ears behind closed doors and to the media when the situation called for it.
So it came with a good deal of irony that Miller was in the building as Vancouver’s backup goaltender Sunday night. Because Buffalo starter Robin Lehner heaped a season’s worth of frustration upon his mates in true Miller-esque fashion following a dreary 4-2 loss to the Canucks in KeyBank Center.
The Sabres failed to carry over any of their good feelings from Saturday’s win in Toronto and blew a chance to pull within three points of a playoff spot in the wild-card race. The Canucks broke a 2-2 tie with two goals in the second period – dropping the Sabres to an NHL-worst minus-22 in the middle period.
Vancouver entered the game losers of five of six overall and just 7-17-3 on the road this season. Lehner has clearly seen enough and spewed fire at his teammates, not coach Dan Bylsma.
“We make two plays, score two goals and that’s about it. It’s not even disappointing anymore. I’m starting to get angry,” said Lehner, who couldn’t do much on any Vancouver goal. “This is all talk. We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror here. It’s disrespectful. I think it’s disrespectful when we have a game plan and go through things.
“The last few days, we’ve been going through how to play our second period. Coach is drawing it up there, coming up with good game plans and we do the exact opposite. We don’t do what he said and that gets me angry, gets a lot of guys angry. Disrespectful is the word.”
Told of Lehner’s comments, Bylsma didn’t disagree.
“It’s not disrespectful to me, it’s disrespectful to the game and the process,” Bylsma said. “We’re not a team that’s a championship team. We’re not a team that’s won anything yet and that’s what we’re trying to get.”
So what goes on in the second period? The Sabres continually overstay shifts and don’t grasp the impact of the long change. Their passing is flawed and their line changes are far from crisp. They got nailed with another too many men on the ice penalty, a habitual problem all season, as Marcus Foligno was gliding to the bench rather than pushing off the ice and Evander Kane jumped on too soon.
“Look at the veteran teams. It’s not science,” Lehner said. “The good teams out there do the same things over and over again. When things happen, when things get a little bit too much, they fall back on the structure. The structure is what bails them out. We have a structure but we don’t play it. If we’re going to chip it deep or do whatever we’re supposed to do, let’s do another deke, let’s do another play. Get out of our zone? No, let’s do the fancy thing.”
Among others, there was clearly some shade thrown there at Jack Eichel and Kane, both minus-3 in the game.
Both had a pair of shifts in the second period that exceeded 70 seconds, with Kane going for 1:43 on one and Eichel for 1:33 on another. Eichel's terrible giveaway to Danel Sedin in his own zone in the first period directly led to Vancouver's second goal, by Michael Chaput.
“We haven’t done anything in this league. ‘Gio’ has won a Cup,” Lehner said, referring to captain Brian Gionta. “All respect to him, he’s done something in this league. The rest of us haven’t. End of story.
“We’ve got to stop thinking after we win a game we’re Chicago or Boston or who we think we are. I don’t know. But it’s time to realize we’re a grinding hockey team. We’ve got to follow the structure, start listening to our coach and start respecting this team and respecting our coach.”
The Sabres got outshot, 12-6, in the middle period and gave up goals to Alexandre Burrows and Chaput. They came 2 seconds and 4 seconds, respectively, after penalties had ended.
Save for sudden 12-minute outburst Tuesday night that turned a 4-1 deficit to San Jose into an improbable 5-4 overtime victory, this is three straight mostly poor performances at home.
“We have a good game last night, a big win, and we have to try and ride some momentum and we lay an egg,” said winger Kyle Okposo, who pulled the Sabres into a 2-2 tie with 16 seconds left in the first period. “It gets old. It was gross in the second.”
The Sabres are down to four games before their bye week and seven games before the trade deadline. To Lehner, time is clearly wasting.
“I really like everyone on this team. I like this organization but you don’t put up results and things happen,” Lehner said. “I’ve been a part of that in Ottawa and it’s not a fun feeling. It’s time for us to wake up from the bottom up, from our whole lineup. Reality is going to come real quick if we don’t figure it out. It’s how it is. You can’t hide from it. This building, these fans, they deserve better. Our coaching staff deserves better.”