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This Process is once again taking the Sabres on the road to nowhere

Mike Harrington

It seems clear from the words and actions of Jason Botterill and Ralph Krueger – and thus, by extension, Terry and Kim Pegula – what is the mindset of the Buffalo Sabres.

Of course, they want to make the playoffs and snap the NHL's longest postseason drought. But as impatient as the fan base is and as cranky as the media can be (slowly raising hand), the general manager and the coach are on the same wavelength in one key area.

You've already heard and read it elsewhere before. The Sabres want you to Trust The Process.

They're out of their minds.

This is corporate-speak borne out of desperation. It's ridiculous. They want to act like there's no pressure here and that they're on a slow rebuild. Krueger even used the actual word "process" in the aftermath of the utterly disgraceful 5-2 loss to lowly Ottawa.

How many rebuilds does this organization need to figure things out?

Unless something drastically changes, it feels like this season ended Tuesday. With still 32 games left. This stinker was bad enough. Losing goalie Linus Ullmark, finally established as a reliable NHL starter, on a fluky and terrible looking right leg injury, makes it even worse.

If the folks inside KeyBank Center are too deep in their bunker to know, here's a message: There is no belief left in this town for this team this season. And, frankly, no belief left in this franchise as a whole.

The lack of desperation around here smacks of ownership telling Botterill to not worry about his status, to simply do the best he can this season and then spend his money this summer.

Do you trust Botterill to get that $35 million in cap space right? Repeating this corner's long-held view: The GM should either be on a very hot seat or be assisted by a veteran hockey mind serving in the team president role.

Botterill had an informal chat with the media Tuesday morning coming off the All-Star break and gave the usual bromides about looking for help up front.

Then it was time to get to the crux of the situation here. When I asked Botterill what the level of desperation is from ownership on down to make the postseason, he simply said, "I don't think our team is that much different than anywhere else."

Hold it right there. Your team is different. It has the longest current playoff drought in the NHL. If it doesn't make the playoffs this year or next year, it will equal the longest drought in NHL history. That's different.

"I think there's a difference between having that be your focus every day of playoffs-playoffs-playoffs vs. what we've realized with this group," Botterill said. "And what Ralph has realized with this group is if we keep the focus on the short-term goals, we seem to play better and we seem to focus better."

Botterill then doubled down on his crutch of the farm system.

"In our conversation, the goal is ultimately to get to the playoffs and we understand the importance of our young players gaining that experience," he said. "It's what we've tried to create in Rochester. It's what we've tried to create in Cincinnati: Players gaining experience in the playoffs in all situations."

No offense to the Ohioans with the great multi-way chili but I don't want my NHL GM ever talking about having success in the ECHL.

A few hours later, the Sabres looked like they might struggle against those Cincinnati Cyclones. They gave up the game's first seven shots on goal and didn't have one for nearly nine minutes. They got beat to pucks all night. They lost battles along the wall. Their penalty kill gave up three goals against the NHL's 31st-rated power play.

All this against an Ottawa team that was 27th overall in the NHL and simply pathetic on the road, where it was 5-15-4 and had lost seven straight since a Dec. 4 win in Edmonton.

"Obviously we can't play like that at home [against] a team coming off a back to back, we just had a break," said captain Jack Eichel. "It's not good enough. If we want to make playoffs, that's not a playoff-caliber effort by us. You know that, I know that. Everyone in the room knows that."

Jeff Skinner's return featured one shot on goal and a selfish offensive zone interference penalty that led to a power-play goal from old friend Tyler Ennis. But when the Sabres had a power play looking for the tying goal in the final four minutes, their $72 million man was on the bench.

Krueger said he was worried about overuse in Skinner's first game back. And he did run Skinner out there as the extra attacker when Carter Hutton was pulled to create a 6-on-4.

"I got out there at the end. It's a team sport," Skinner said diplomatically. "I'm here to help the team win. It's my first game back and those five guys have been working together for a while. I got out there as a sixth guy."

As for the sixth guy, Krueger rendered the game moot when Ottawa scored into an empty net with 2:06 left. Krueger should send the analytics printouts to the moon telling him to pull the goalie with more than 2 1/2 minutes left in a one-goal game on the power play. He's going for the 6-on-4 and ignoring the fact his team doesn't possess the puck well enough and opponents can fire it down the ice without worrying about icing.

Krueger wins the press conferences every day far better than Dan Bylsma and Phil Housley. He isn't proving much better at winning games, even with Eichel now establishing himself as a top-10 player in the league.

Krueger dismissed the notion that this game should empty the fans' belief meter.

"If one game throws everything off kilter, we don't have much of a foundation," he said. "We feel a group that is truly bought in to a process. We had an off game coming off the break here."

Sure did.

"Adversity is something you need to look in the eyes and you need to be strong about and you need to use it and that's what we'll do here," the coach continued. "We've got two days to get ready for Montreal and we will be ready."

At this point, does it even matter? There doesn't ever seem to be a real plan for this franchise. It's always about next year. And next year never comes.

The Wraparound: Ottawa Senators 5, Buffalo Sabres 2

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