Phil Housley's message has not changed since he became coach of the Buffalo Sabres, yet his players' execution has deteriorated since a 10-game winning streak had them sitting atop the NHL more than two months ago.
His frustrations with their play reached a boiling point Friday night, when the Sabres opened a seven-game homestand in KeyBank Center with an embarrassing 7-3 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, the second-worst team in the Western Conference.
Buffalo, now 25-20-6 and still three points back of the second wild-card playoff spot, allowed three goals in the second and third periods. Despite outshooting Chicago, 43-30, Housley's players again did not follow many of the basic tenets of his coaching philosophy or a simple game plan against a struggling opponent.
"The lack of respect for our own net," Housley lamented. "First period we had 15 shots – we should have had 25 shots. We passed up too many opportunities and when we did get shots nobody was in front of the net. … You look at the five goals out of the seven, the puck’s on our stick. and we’re trying to make plays through people against a team that’s very effective off the rush."
The Blackhawks (19-24-9), still last in the Central Division, looked like their former selves against the Sabres.
Patrick Kane stretched his point streak to 10 games with two goals and two assists. His breakaway goal began a horrific second period for Buffalo. That led to Carter Hutton being pulled after allowing four goals on 22 shots -- the second time in three starts he has not finished the game.
Blackhawks winger Brandon Saad also scored his 16th and 17th goals of the season, the second of which made it 7-3 with 38 seconds remaining in regulation.
Drake Caggiula opened the scoring 1:22 into the game when he was left alone in front of the net following a turnover by Sam Reinhart. Hutton blamed himself for Duncan Keith's rebound goal that made the score 3-1 in the second period, however, Saad's that followed was the result of a 2-on-1 odd-man rush.
The Sabres were booed by their own fans following that nightmarish 20 minutes.
"Probably just making it too easy on other teams at this point," Sabres captain Jack Eichel, who scored his 17th goal of the season in the second period, said. "We have the puck, we’re turning it over. We’re giving it back to them. Everyone’s guilty of that, myself included. You can’t win a game giving up seven goals. At least we're not going to win a game doing that. We should realize that."
Since becoming coach prior to last season, Housley's offensive mantra has been "shot mentality," and he encourages players to take advantage of open looks with traffic in front of the opposing goalie. He wants all five players -- including defensemen -- involved offensively but each one must be responsible without the puck.
His 5-on-5 offensive play finally broke through with two goals in less than four minutes during the third period to cut the deficit to one. He also broke up his top line, putting Eichel with Jason Pominville and Conor Sheary.
Pominville scored on a centering pass from Jeff Skinner, and Kyle Okposo snapped the Sabres' 1-for-27 power-play slump with his rebound goal to make it 4-3 with 12:44 remaining.
Buffalo then nearly tied the score when Pominville's cross-slot pass to Eichel was deflected toward the net, but Blackhawks goalie Cam Ward made a split save and Connor Murphy scored moments later with a shot over Linus Ullmark's shoulder.
Kane and Saad added insurance goals, the first of which came with an empty net.
"We made those guys look really good because we had no respect for our end," Pominville added. "Everything they got we gave to them. ... You’re not going to win many games if you defend the way we did tonight."
Like previous games, the problem began in the offensive zone. The Sabres passed up open shots and failed to screen Ward. Though Buffalo dominated play for the first 20 minutes, passing up on a number of open looks in the offensive zone resulted in turnovers.
"For sure the game would have been different if we scored there in the first," Casey Mittelstadt later admitted. "The first one changed things quite a bit."
The Sabres own the NHL's second-worst record since their 10-game winning streak ended Nov. 29, and have a negative-18 goal differential during that span.
Housley drills 5-on-5 play in practices with an emphasis on going hard to the net, and he has repeatedly warned his players of the dangers of poor decisions with and without the puck.
Skinner's turnover led to Kane's breakaway goal, while Zach Bogosian and Rasmus Dahlin both joined the rush on Saad's first goal. The message is even repeated by veterans within the dressing room.
Still, a team that appeared to be on the verge of breaking a eight-year playoff drought is reeling and failing to execute Housley's plan.
"We've relayed the message," Pominville said. "The coaches have talked about it. We've talked about it. I think the best way is going out there and doing it. ... You have to defend."