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Mike Harrington: Sabres have gone soft and drastic fixes are needed

It's time for the Sabres to take some drastic measures. Right now.

They are a broken team, probably lucky that they're only three points out of the playoffs. A quick winning streak can get them right where they want to be, but they haven't won as many as two games in a row in nearly two months.

Do you get the feeling some big run is coming soon? Me neither.

The sad and stark realization in the rear-view mirror is the 10-game winning streak that stood the town on its ear in November really was, in fact, one of the luckiest runs in recent NHL history.

This corner has bucked that viewpoint for a long time. The thinking was you just can't win that many games with a rabbit's foot, even if nine of the victories were by a single goal and seven came after regulation. That many close wins in a row is a trend, a group of players understanding the moment and making big plays at the right times.

Welp, I was wrong. This team has gone soft before our very eyes.

Unless Phil Housley and Jason Botterill step in and stop the insanity of trying to do the same things over and over again, the Sabres are heading back to the draft lottery.

Friday's 7-3 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks was an embarrassing way to open what was supposed to be a make-or-break seven-game homestand. And I really don't want to hear about the first seven minutes of the third period, where the Sabres scored twice to get within 4-3 and outshot the Hawks, 11-0.

Nice comebacks are a loser's lament.

Don't sell me the shot counters either. For the record, the Sabres had a 43-30 advantage in pucks on goal and 63-45 in pucks at goal. It should have been worse. Much worse. Especially in the first period, the Sabres were passing up shot chances left and right. That continued all night right to the end.

The biggest killer came in the third period with the Sabres pressing for the tying goal when Jason Pominville overpassed looking for Jack Eichel on a 3-on-1. Down the ice the Blackhawks went and Connor Murphy took a Patrick Kane pass to beat Linus Ullmark to make it 5-3 and end Buffalo's hopes in this one.

Kane, who had four points, was his vintage self. But the Hawks are mostly terrible these days. This is not the 2009-2016 versions although the Sabres sure made them look that way at times.

My favorite leatherlung in Section 316 near the press box (Remember "Fire Re-geeeeeer" and "Make a move, Murrrrrrray!") was howling again near the end of this one as he bellowed, "Make a mooooove, Botterilllllll".

All for that.

Trades are starting to go down in the NHL. Pittsburgh and Florida made a huge one Friday that included Derick Brassard and Nick Bjugstad, a burly center who would look nice in Buffalo's hole-in-the-middle lineup. Botterill is best advised to not wait until Feb. 25 if he wants to save this season.

It's simple really. Botterill has to get the trade machine going. Housley needs to put the lines in the blender and break up his top unit for a while -- like Colorado has done with Nathan MacKinnon's group -- and Linus Ullmark needs to become the No. 1 goaltender.

Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Ristolainen, Rasmus Dahlin, Sam Reinhart and Zach Bogosian were all minus-3 in this game. Eichel -- who didn't have a shot on goal for the first 38 minutes -- Marco Scandella, Casey Mittelstadt and Conor Sheary were all minus-2. That's what giving up seven goals looks like.

That's mostly the core of your team. If the stars are going to play that way, this team has zero chance.

Housley was spitting nails after this one, like he darn well should have been. His defense looks lost. Bogosian, who has been pretty solid much of year, has gone full Scandella the last two games with terrible turnovers. Ristolainen gave up on a play far too soon and let Duncan Keith beat him to a rebound for the Hawks' third goal, albeit it was a terrible rebound allowed by Carter Hutton.

This team has completely regressed defensively and has no respect for the puck or its own end. That's on Housley and defensive coach Steve Smith some, but that has to be mostly on the players. They're on the ice. This team practices its system over and over and over again. It's up to them to execute it.

"I think we're too busy trying to score goals," Housley said. "... You look at five goals out of the seven, the puck's on our stick. We're trying to make plays through people against a team that's very effective off the rush."

Housley, of course, gets his lion's share of the blame. Lawrence Pilut should not see the press box again if Bogosian and Scandella don't have to. No one in their right mind can explain what Vladimir Sobotka is doing on the ice other than taking faceoffs and Botterill has left the Sabres so thin down the middle with the Ryan O'Reilly trade that Sobotka was actually centering Skinner and Reinhart in the third period while Eichel was between Sheary and Pominville.

Hutton and Ullmark got outplayed by Cam Ward, who is now 34 years old and still living off the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy he won for Carolina nearly 13 years ago. Ward came into the game with a 3.87 goals-against average and .888 save percentage and was easily the best goalie on the ice all night.

Hutton is just 3-9-2 since the 10-game winning streak ended and continues his propensity for allowing at least one grievous goal every night. This time it was Keith's, when a simple save became a rebound dropped in the crease. Hutton was gone after two periods and was stand-up about his situation afterward.

"I'm just a little bit off. But in my world truthfully if you're a little bit off, they make you pay," said Hutton. "Just a [bleep] rebound, a bad goal and they make you pay. The other three obviously you want to make saves but they were pretty good goals. Early in the year, I thought I made all those big saves where right now I'm just missing them. It's frustrating because nothing has really changed for me."

His numbers have. Hutton is 15-15-3 for the season with a 2.86 goals-against average and .909 save percentage.

"I'm the first one to tell you I need to be better." Hutton said. "Tomorrow is a new day. I'm going to come back, get back to work here and keep chipping away. We've got a lot of hockey left."

At this point, how much of it will be meaningful is a serious question.

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