CALGARY, Alberta – Brian Gionta sat and watched the last 13 games and, like many of you, he couldn’t believe his eyes either.
The Buffalo Sabres’ captain saw his team go 1-12 after he was felled by a hit from Boston’s Matt Bartkowski during a Dec. 21 game in TD Garden. By the time he finally returned to the ice for Tuesday’s contest against the Calgary Flames, the Sabres had careened to the longest regulation losing streak in their history.
Buffalo entered the game, which was not complete in time for this edition, with 11 straight losses — the most consecutive pointless games by a NHL team since the 2003-04 Pittsburgh Penguins dropped 13 straight. The Sabres were also one more loss shy of tying the franchise-record winless streak of 12 games set in 1991.
Lots of losses, however, were forecast by most hockey experts even as Gionta was signing a three-year, $12.75 million contract last July. Gionta simply refused to think it could ever get this bad.
“I didn’t believe it then and I still don’t believe it,” Gionta said prior to Tuesday’s game in the Scotiabank Saddledome. “I still think we’re a much better team than we’re showing. That’s the frustrating part. If you knew it wasn’t in here, you wouldn’t accept it but you would certainly be like, ‘All right, we need to find some answers.’ We know that we have some answers in this room and that we can win games consistently. That’s the frustrating part.”
The Sabres were on a 10-3 run from Nov. 15-Dec. 16 but entered Tuesday just 1-14-1 in their last 16 games. Their offense was again misfiring, their goaltending was suffering and their special teams have plummeted to the bottom of the league.
What has Gionta been seeing?
“It’s not what we’re doing in the offensive zone. It’s more what we’re doing in the defensive zone,” he said. “We’re not getting out, spending too much time there, not coming out clean. With no clean forecheck, you have no pressure because all our time is in the D-zone.
“We spend too much time in our end, relying on our goalies to make the big save. You can’t give guys time and space in our zone and that’s one of our biggest problems. We’re not closing quick enough. We’re not stopping the other team’s cycle and they’re creating a lot of puck possession in our zone.”
Gionta is a seven-time 20-goal scorer in the NHL and had 18 last year for Montreal. He entered Tuesday’s game with just four goals in 34 games.
“It’s tough, especially when you’re out,” he said. “You want to be a part of it. When the team is struggling, you take a lot on your own. You want to be higher in the standings and we still have just about half a season to get our game in order and get some renewed life in this room.
“I’m trying to pick up where I left off because I was feeling good about my game when I got hurt. We need to change the feeling. It’s that snowball going the wrong way and you have to find a way to stop it, whatever way that is.”
Even without the offense they might have expected, the Sabres missed Gionta just from the standpoint of being a calming influence in the dressing room and on the bench.
“When he was out, we certainly missed that mentor,” said coach Ted Nolan. “He’s been through a lot in his career and knows how to handle situations. His presence is very valuable. I don’t know what kind of analytics we can do for that but the personal touch he adds to it you can’t measure on statistics. But you sure measure on presence.”
Suspended defenseman Nikita Zadorov was not at the morning skate as he was making his way west after missing practice Monday in Buffalo and the team flight here. Zadorov went on vacation with his girlfriend to the Dominican Republic during the all-star break and was reportedly bumped off an oversold return flight.
Nolan had no update on Zadorov’s status for Thursday’s game in Edmonton until after the team speaks to him. “He’s here,” Nolan said after the game. “We’ll have a good talk, sit down with him and have a grown-up talk.”
Following the morning skate, Nolan said he wasn’t ready to entirely blame Zadorov.
“We all know 19-year-olds,” Nolan said. “Sometimes maybe we could have gotten more involved, gotten in touch with him, found out what were his travel plans ... You can’t put the blame on a 19-year-old kid sometimes. We’ve got to take a little bit of responsibility also.”
With Zadorov out, the Sabres had just one extra on defense and Andre Benoit was the healthy scratch.
Calgary rookie Johnny Gaudreau was still basking in the glow of participating in the All-Star Game and the skills competition, and the 5-foot-9 rookie was one of the hits of the breakaway competition after Philadelphia’s Jakub Vorachek grabbed him as a puppet to try to score.
Gaudreau entered Tuesday second in the league among rookies in goals (13) and points (35). Gaudreau and Calgary defenseman Mark Giordano were talking about their own elaborate schemes for the skills competition, but they had a fire-on-ice routine nixed by the league’s Department of Player Safety.
“He thought it would be a good idea because we play for the Flames but they shut it down pretty quick,” Gaudreau said. “I wanted to ask first just in case. We asked the media relations guys, they asked the league and they said no.”
Gaudreau said he and Giordano were pondering all sorts of wild ideas to try, including gas on the ice and on their sticks to create a fire effect as the puck was shot.
Said Gaudreau of the league’s reaction: “They said maybe next year – if we do a couple of practice runs.”
The Sabres will practice in Edmonton on Wednesday and meet the Oilers Thursday night in Rexall Place. Oilers star Taylor Hall missed Tuesday’s game against Minnesota with a lower-body injury after being struck by a shot Monday in practice. His status for Thursday is uncertain.