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Mike Harrington: No rest on defense as injury crisis deepens

After a week full of Eichelpalooza and all it looked like it would mean going forward, the brakes have to be applied in a way that will make Sabres fans cringe.

June 1, 2006.

There. Said it. Sorry. You might not automatically remember the date, but you know what happened.

It was Game Seven of the Eastern Conference final. Sabres at Carolina. With the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers awaiting in the Stanley Cup final. The Sabres were the best team in the NHL by that point as spring was turning to summer. To this day, it's easy to say they would have finally won the Cup that June.

But their defense was ravaged by injury and on gameday morning, workhorse Jay McKee came down with a staph infection in his leg. As the story goes, it came from wearing the same shinpads that he did as a teen-ager.

Remember the immortal six the Sabres fielded on defense that night? Brian Campbell and Toni Lydman, no problem. But then there was Rory Fitzpatrick (look in your feet for the puck, Rory!). Doug Janik and Jeff Jillson. And Nathan Paetsch, making his NHL debut in a game to decide a trip to the Cup final.

The Sabres lost, 4-2, and have never been closer to the Cup since. This Sabres team is obviously nowhere near the level of that one but the story is relevant because they're going down that road again.

Zach Bogosian (knee) and Dmitry Kulikov (back) are both out, and neither has played since Nov. 9. And now veteran Josh Gorges is out after taking a shot to the foot Thursday night against the New York Rangers. Even Casey Nelson is sidelined in Rochester with a neck/shoulder issue. Judging from coach Dan Bylsma's downcast mood, although there's no concrete information yet, Gorges may be out a while.

Already playing with decent Rochester callups Taylor Fedun and Justin Falk as a third pair, the Sabres dipped into the junior ranks so Brendan Guhle could make his NHL debut during Saturday's 2-1 loss to Boston in KeyBank Center. Guhle certainly didn't look out of place, again showing why he's nearly made the team out of training camp two straight years.

More than ever, you're going to have to use bubblewrap on Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe and Cody Franson. The thought of another injury on defense is too much to bear.

"You take three defensemen out of your lineup and you get thin," Bylsma said. "We all knew we were not deep and a little bit thin at the start of the season as an organization. Getting three injuries accents that position."

Indeed, there's not much left at Rochester at this point. Tyson Strachan was serviceable while playing for the Tank Sabres two years ago and Bylsma insists free agent signee Erik Burgdoerfer, a 27-year-old who has never played an NHL game, would be suitable for a callup if the team needed a right-handed shot. But let's get real if you're trying to win games at this level.

During a weekly radio appearance last month, General Manager Tim Murray said the trade market was pretty static at this point in the season and noted cryptically that "I think I can get a fourth liner from a team or a sixth or seventh defenseman from a team."

He was probably right at the time to send out the why-bother aura. Times are different now. He needs to do it. There aren't enough healthy NHL defensemen in this organization. Murray needs to flip somebody (Zemgus Girgensons?) for an NHL depth blueliner.

Look what the Sabres have to deal with this week. Alex Ovechkin Monday night in Washington, Connor McDavid here Tuesday and Ovechkin again here Friday. A move today would be a fine idea.

Bylsma was hoping in preseason to monitor Ristolainen's minutes tightly this season. No chance. He played 29:09 in this one, just the second time this season he broke 29 minutes in regulation. He's going to be in that range for the immediate future.

"Personally, I love it. More ice time, I feel great," Ristolainen said. "But you've got to earn it too. I made a couple soft plays and there were their goals. I have to step up even more."

"With the injuries that keep coming, he's most likely going to be going against what we talked about in the beginning of the year with his minutes," said Bylsma, raising an eyebrow as he looked at the stat sheet. "I'm not surprised to see the total up there. Paired with Jake, he's going to get out there in most situations for us."

During the pregame warmups, Ristolainen and Zemgus Girgensons did a playful leaping shoulder bump. You almost cringed watching. Franson was hit and got up slowly in one sequence in the second period. McCabe took a hard, high hit from Dominic Moore late the in the second and appeared stunned, going to the bench slowly and shaking out the cobwebs.

"You have to give even more when a guy likes Josh goes down," said McCabe (23:58). "With these injuries on the back end, everyone has to step up to a larger role than we're all used to. These guys we've brought in have stepped in and played well."

"I'm comfortable in this situation," added Franson (19:04). "Obviously, we're hoping guys will come back soon but in the meantime we'll try to take care of business as best we can and I think we've done a decent job of it so far."

Can't argue with that. Until they showed up in mid-November, I'm sure only a handful of Sabres fans even remembered Falk and Fedun were in the system after being signed over the summer. They've played a combined 19 games and have a plus-1 rating.

There were no issues with the D, as it turned out Saturday. The reinforcements haven't proven to be a huge problem thus far. It's goal scoring, or lack thereof, that reared its ugly head again Saturday as DJ Kool got to clear his throat no more than once for the eighth time in 12 games downtown this year.

Eichel didn't do much Saturday but his return clearly gives the offense hope most nights. But how long can this situation really last on the back end before it disintegrates? It's a situation few teams ever deal with, and certainly not for the long term because it looks another couple weeks at least before you can figure on seeing either Kulikov or Bogosian back in the lineup.

Here's hoping Ristolainen, McCabe and Franson are playing with clean shin pads.



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