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COMMENTARY

Sabres sending no messages on the scoreboard or on the ice

Mike Harrington

There was over-the-top tough news Wednesday morning and a discouraging finish in the evening. Another rough day all around for the Buffalo Sabres.

Vladimir Sobotka's injury didn't heal like the Sabres hoped and the team announced he underwent knee surgery. It might be season-ending. Then came the injury report listing Rasmus Dahlin as out indefinitely with the concussion he suffered Monday night in Tampa.

Sobotka was taken out in the first period in Sweden on a ridiculously late hit by Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov. Dahlin took an elbow to the mush from Lightning defensemen Erik Cernak.

From the NHL's Department of Egregiously Bad Officiating, neither play resulted in a penalty. The Department of Player Safety, meanwhile, issued a minor mea culpa on the Dahlin hit and gave Cernak a two-game suspension, an absurdly light sentence given the potential for how long Dahlin could be out of the lineup.

And here's a much bigger issue: Nobody in Blue and Gold did anything about either play. Kucherov skated around scot-free in Sweden both days and didn't face any comeuppance Monday night either. Nor did Cernak.

As revealed by the Player Safety video, the Lightning had the audacity to try to defend the Cernak play by saying Dahlin's glove came up and was directed into his face by Cernak. That's a galling lack of accountability right there but it's a deeper sign of disrespect toward the Sabres.

And why should a team like Tampa Bay respect the Sabres anyway? The Bolts have six straight wins over Buffalo and are 19-3-1 in the last 23 meetings. And this is one of the teams the Sabres will have to figure out how to play against if they ever want to do anything in the Atlantic Division.

More than eight years after Milan Lucic's unanswered plummeting of Ryan Miller, the Sabres remain about as soft as Grandma's homemade pumpkin ice cream sitting out on the Thanksgiving Day countertop.

That's a sentence not typed lightly. One of the worst things you can call a hockey team is "soft." Players take massive offense to it. Coach Ralph Krueger's team clearly lacks feel for when a response is warranted.

Now, Krueger correctly pointed out the era of massive retaliatory brawls is long past. But we're not talking about that. A message-sending bodycheck once in a while would be nice.

And when things were out of hand the second night in Sweden or with a 5-2 score in the third period Monday night, how do Kucherov and Cernak both skate around with impunity and never worry about having their heads up?

"When you ask me what's changed in the game, more than anything the respect among the players is much, much higher than it was when I was here last," said Krueger, who's back in the NHL after a six-year absence. "I think there is a physicality that is allowed and if it goes over, it's punishable now. We'll learn from it for sure. This isn't that kind of a game anymore."

Maybe my eyerolls were obvious to Krueger. But asked again why his team did nothing, the coach dug in his heels.

"We'll deal with it the way we deal with it inside," he said. "We keep those conversations inside and we learn and grow from every game in many different ways and that's another one where we can get stronger in the future. But thanks for your opinion."

You're welcome.

The Sabres are in a 2-8-3 abyss after Wednesday's 3-2 overtime loss to Calgary.  They did lots of good things and had 16 of their 36 shots in the third period. Jimmy Vesey scored a short-handed goal and Rasmus Asplund looks like a keeper. But the Sabres also gave up a lead in the third and Rasmus Ristolainen got stuck on the ice in OT and couldn't stop Elias Lindholm's game-winner.

You simply can't lose to Team Turmoil at home,  when the Flames hit town 1-5-2 and not even knowing who their coach will be Thursday. Just can't happen.

And the bigger picture continues to gnaw at the perception of this club.

If someone took out John Carlson, would the Capitals stand by idly? I think Tom Wilson, Radko Gudas and a few others would have something to say.

What would the Bruins do if Torey Krug went down like Dahlin did? How about the Sharks with Erik Karlsson? Or the Lightning with Victor Hedman?

When Ristolainen issued a check during one game in Sweden, he was quickly swarmed by four Tampa players -- including star Steven Stamkos. That's what teams do.

Zach Bogosian is one of those guys who can answer, but the Sabres certainly don't want him getting involved in those sort of things so soon after his return from hip surgery. Jake McCabe can but he was a healthy scratch Monday. Curtis Lazar? Could, but only played nine minutes against the Lightning.

Who else? We're not talking goonery here. Before the famous Peters-Mair-Kaleta (and Marty Biron) brawl with Ottawa in 2007, remember who immediately answered Chris Neil's infamous elbow on Chris Drury?

Drew Stafford. Playing out of character is what good teams often do.

Let's not forget that captain Jack Eichel was so disgusted with everything around this team last week that he threw down against Minnesota. What did Eichel think of my notion?

"Obviously we try to play them hard and there's been some things going back and forth," he said of the Lightning. "We play each other a lot. You just want to be competitive as much as you can. That's a tough question, to be honest with you. I don't have the exact answer for you right now."

Eichel went on to say all the right things, about how the Sabres had to focus on Calgary and then they'd see Tampa Bay again here on New Year's Eve.

"I think we've done a good job of sticking together as a team," he said. "A lot of things happen during the season so as long as the room is sticking together and guys are sticking up for each other, that's important."

When Eichel disagrees with an assertion you've made, he'll tell you so and usually why his thought differs. He wasn't disagreeing here. Some things are simply better left unsaid.

In fairness, most of the players on the bench thought the Dahlin play initially came from a high stick, especially when they saw blood on the ice. Doesn't excuse them for letting Cernak go when even-up time was at hand.

"It was tough to watch," Bogosian said. "The league did what they thought was necessary and you move on from that."

The Sabres keep moving on to the road from nowhere. Now it's a home-and-home series with Mike Babcock-less and red-hot Toronto, starting here Friday afternoon at 4. The Leafs are 3-0 under Sheldon Keefe after Wednesday's 6-0 skunking of Detroit.

The Sabres have dropped five straight to their biggest rivals for the first time since the 1971-72 season. They've never lost six in a row to them. Reaching that dubious deed would be quite a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary season, eh?

Getting pushed around on the ice on too many nights is bad enough.

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