Share this article

print logo

Jerry Sullivan: Somehow, Sabres reach a new low

Heading into Thursday's game against the Red Wings in KeyBank Center, the Sabres had already clinched the worst home record in team history.

Even if they had won the final two at KeyBank, the best the Sabres could have done at home was 31 points. They had 33 points in both of the tank seasons. They had a franchise-low 31 points in 1971-72, but that was in a 78-game season. So the points percentage would be lower.

These are grim times, indeed. A team that was expected to compete for a playoff spot entered the penultimate home game dead last in the NHL. So you figured it couldn't get any worse. Then again, these are the Sabres.

It got worse. Hard as it is to imagine, they reached another new low. On a night when Casey Mittelstadt made his NHL debut and the crowd was in an uncommonly upbeat mood, they played their most distressing game in a misbegotten season.

That's saying a lot, I know, but how can it get any worse than losing to a Detroit team that came into Buffalo on an 0-10-1 road streak, its worst road losing skid since late 1981, or early in the Reagan presidency?

Coach Phil Housley was asked what it says when his team loses to a team that hadn't won away from Detroit since Feb. 25.

"I can't control what Detroit's doing," Housley said. "We can only control what we're doing. We beat this team twice. We could have won the season series with Detroit. Those things are out of our control. We can control what we do."

Housley pointed out that the Sabres were 11-9-3 in the division before the game. Something to build on. Wow. Talk about missing the forest for the trees. They're last in the NHL. Considering the expectations and talent level, this is the worst season in franchise history.

They can't control what Detroit is doing? They could not go to sleep after taking a 2-0 lead and lifting the home crowd out of its usual lifeless stupor. They could not allow a short-handed goal that tied the score.

Sabres again taken to school in Mittelstadt's debut

Housley's guys could have not allowed four unanswered goals, and six overall, to a team that hadn't won a road game in a month. Most NHL teams would have stepped on the Red Wings' throats. This is the Sabres, however, who can't stand prosperity or play defense.

This could have been a memorable night in a season devoid of them. Fans had been awaiting Mittelstadt's debut since he dazzled in developmental camp last summer and followed up with a stellar performance here at the World Juniors.

So it was no surprise when the Sabres signed Mittelstadt and trotted him out for the last six games. Sure, they want him to get acclimated to the league. But management is also desperate to give their fans some flicker of hope for next season.

Fans have turned away from this team. But Buffalo folks have an infinite capacity for belief, for clinging to faint promise. They've shown that through the years by showing up for dysfunctional Bills teams. What do they say about Buffalo teams? They're great at selling hope.

Mittelstadt is a rare bit of hope, a swift skater with great hands and puckhandling skills. That's something you can sell. It's like the Bills' new franchise quarterback showing up to play in the final home game. Tickets for Mittelstadt's debut were going for $35 on the secondary market, which is a lot better than $6.

The arena was more lively than it has been in recent weeks – not a terribly high standard. The fans' mood was lifted 3:16 into the game when Jack Eichel jetted down the right wing and wired a shot past Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard to give the Sabres a 1-0 lead.

Seconds after Eichel scored, the Sabres put Mittelstadt's image on the scoreboard above center ice and welcomed him to the NHL. The crowd roared its approval and doubled down seconds later when Eichel's 25th goal of the season was announced.

"It's pretty exciting to see the fans that excited, and I'm excited to be here," said Mittelstadt. "Hopefully, I can have plenty more of them in this building and we can try to build off a few of them."

Maybe a new savior was just what Eichel needed. He took the kid out to lunch after Mittelstadt signed on Tuesday. Eichel, all of 21, sounded like a grizzled vet when talking about imparting wisdom to the new guy.

Eichel knows how it feels to have the weight of a losing franchise on his shoulders. So much has been expected of him in his three years as the Sabres' "generational player." Having a new 19-year-old show up with the attendant expectations and pressure has to help.

Mittelstadt is the type of swift, shifty center who makes players around him better. That's not always the case with Jack. If a rivalry develops over which is the better player, it'll be better for all involved.

But it'll take a lot more to revive this team. You don't lose on purpose without suffering prolonged consequences. Many of the Sabres play as if they're comfortable with losing. It's dangerous to drop a kid into such a toxic losing culture.

Eichel sat at his locker after this distressing loss, looking like a man who was tired of rationalizing defeat and trying to contain his anger.

"There were spurts," he said. "There were some good things. But consistently, shift in and shift out, it wasn't where we wanted it to be."

It gets tiresome, hearing about them letting up and not doing the little things. Mittelstadt got welcomed to the NHL by the officials, who whistled him for a faceoff penalty in the second period. That led to Detroit's go-ahead goal.  It was fitting, in a way. In his first game in the NHL, the new savior makes a rookie mistake that leads to the winning goal.

How tough is it, I asked Eichel, to lose to a team that was on its worst losing streak in 37 years?

"I don't think that makes any difference, to be honest with you," he said. "I don't, uh, I don't think that makes any difference."

Maybe it doesn't. The coach and star player can't see the gravity of falling apart against a team on its worst road losing streak in 37 years. You know it's bad when that sort of embarrassment seems like just another game.

There are no comments - be the first to comment