There are few things worse for professional athletes than being called mentally fragile. It means opponents and fans view you as weak-minded pushovers who can be intimidated into submission rather than world-class, highly talented, physically fit competitors.
What's worse than that? Knowing it's true.
That's what the Buffalo Sabres dealt with this season. From final-minute collapses to folding under adversity, from zero confidence to not knowing how to win, the Sabres spent almost half of 2011-12 feeling inferior and small. They felt mentally weak.
"Yeah," alternate captain Derek Roy admitted. "You've got to go out and make a difference. You've got to want the puck. You've got to want to change and score a goal and be the difference in the game. I thought that's something we needed to do."
The Sabres started the season as legitimate hopefuls for the Stanley Cup, but they finished out of the playoffs.
Buffalo's ultimate undoing was a 9-19-5 slump from mid-November to late January. The team just wasn't strong enough to stop the slide until it was too late.
"Some of it is confidence and not getting it done," alternate captain Thomas Vanek said. "Being in this league for a while, I needed to be stronger mentally and wasn't. When we went through that drought, instead of being one of the guys to try and get us out of there, I did try but it just didn't happen."
So what did happen to sap their psyche? What drained their mental state so much that the Sabres would admit to being fragile?
*They couldn't stay focused during the most important 60 seconds.
When the announcer says, "Last minute of play in the period," it's supposed to be a call to hunker down. Too often, the words lulled the Sabres to sleep.
The Sabres allowed a goal in the final minute of a period 13 times. It forced them to trudge into the dressing room or overtime feeling down, as the results show. Of the 12 games in which it happened (Colorado struck late twice in one game), the Sabres won just three (3-5-4).
"We were three points out," alternate captain Drew Stafford said, "so you look back at some of the games we threw away either in the last couple seconds or the last minute or so, games we should have won and got the points."
The final-minute blues struck four times in the season's final month. Montreal scored with five seconds left in regulation March 12, but the Sabres rallied to win, 3-2. They weren't so lucky after that. In the very next game, Colorado tied it with 52 seconds left in the first period and with just two seconds left in regulation. The Avs won in overtime, 5-4.
In the fourth-last game on the schedule, Toronto scored with one second left in the second period to take a 3-1 lead. The Maple Leafs dealt the Sabres a critical blow with 4-3 regulation victory.
"It's just our mind-set," defenseman Tyler Myers said. "A lot of the games this year we just failed to play 60 minutes. There were more than a handful of games where we had a really good 40 minutes and lost the game in 10 to 20 minutes."
*The Sabres got crunched in crunch time.
Until the penultimate game in Philadelphia, which Buffalo lost, 3-1, despite having a 1-0 edge in the third period, the Sabres were solid at holding onto late leads. They were terrible at taking them.
The Sabres skated into the third period tied or trailing in 54 games and won just 14. They went 4-24-2 when trailing and only 10-7-7 when tied.
"I feel like as soon as we got scored on a lot of the games we deflated instead of going the opposite way," Roy said. "That's something we did address. You're going to get scored on. It's going to happen. You're not going to be shutting out every team, so as soon as you get scored on, the next shift has got to be even harder. You've got to finish your checks or even score a goal back again.
"I feel like in some of the games as soon as we got scored on we let up. I remember one of the Philly games in Philly, we were up, [2-0]. They scored on the first shift of the second period and then they ramped us after that [7-2]."
*Roadkill along the Thruway had a better time away from home.
The ability to travel to hostile environments and quiet rowdy fans is an important trait of a successful team.
Buffalo was historically bad, setting a franchise record by losing 12 straight road games. The 0-12-0 skid from Dec. 17 to Jan. 24 turned their minds to mush.
"The main thing was the confidence," defenseman Christian Ehrhoff said. "The low point was when we had the 12-game losing streak on the road. I was out at that point [with injury], and I could really tell that the guys were down at the lowest point."
The Sabres scored 17 goals during the 12-game debacle. They finished with just 90 goals on the road, which ranked 27th in the 30-team league.
"A lot of guys were having a tough time trying to find ways to create stuff offensively, and sometimes you tend to cheat a little bit and hope to get the team going," captain Jason Pominville said. "It ends up going the other way. Part of it is that's what happened. We were going through a tough stretch, and a lot of guys wanted to help out and be a hero, but it went the other way."
*They failed to handle the pressures of being Cup contenders.
With back-to-back playoff appearances, including a Northeast Division title season, on their resume, the Sabres were expected to excel. They finished last year 16-4-4 and added several key pieces. Instead, they were an also-ran organization.
"You have to prove you're a good team over the course of the season," goaltender Ryan Miller said. "You have to prove you're a contender. You have to prove everything every single year. Every time you step on the ice, people can question your abilities.
"I don't think we ever qualified, and I don't think we ever stepped up to that level we talked about and where we needed to be. That's embarrassing."
It's an embarrassment they'll have to carry until next season.
"It's not the way we thought it was going to happen when we came in in September," defenseman Mike Weber said, "but I think it's a good chance to kind of get knocked back down to reality and know how hard it's going to be next year for us to bounce back."
Crunching the numbers . Figuring out why the Sabres missed the playoffs
10 : Number of Sabres wins in 24 games that were tied after 40 minutes.
13 : Number of times the Sabres allowed a goal in the final minute of a period
18 : Sabres ranking when trailing after two periods (4-24-2, .133 points pct.)
22 : Sabres ranking when scoring first (25-9-8, .595)
27 : Sabres ranking in goals scored on the road (90).