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The Sabres at Midseason

Disastrous start has team playing catch up

Don’t let the Sabres recent run of success in the month of January fool you.

As the team heads into the All Star break, they find themselves within a semblance of striking distance of eighth place, but despite the points they’ve managed to pick up this month, the team has made little headway in closing the gap with the conference’s elite teams. Couple that with exasperating and inexplicable losses to the bottom-dwelling New York Islanders, and one has to question whether this team has what it takes to put enough together to qualify for the playoffs come April.

To learn the story of this 2010-2011 team, one need only look at the October results. The Sabres went 3-7-2 for the opening part of their schedule, enough to land them in last place in the Northeast Division. In the first week, they had a chance to make a statement against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Instead the team fell apart after watching Jason Pominville get carted off the ice in a stretcher, losing 4-3. In fact, losing became a common occurrence at HSBC Arena, The team finally got that monkey off their back, an overtime winner at home against Washington, on November 13—more than a month into the season.

Here are our assessments of the components of the team for the first half of the season:

Scoring: Derek Roy was the leading scorer until very recently, and he is now out for the year with injury. Players aren’t finishing their chances—just ask Jochen Hecht, Jason Pominville, and Paul Gaustad. Drew Stafford has flashes of brilliance, such as two hat tricks this season, both against the Boston Bruins. Then he goes down to injury or simply disappears. The Sabres have turned to their prospects for help, including big Luke Adam and Nathan Gerbe. Yet Mark Mancari, who has been on fire down in Portland throughout much of the season and this week received AHL Player of the Week honors, isn’t given a chance. Tim Connolly? Can anyone count the days until this guy is shipped out of here for good?

Defense: It appears that Tyler Myers has gone into the proverbial “sophomore slump” and has struggled to retain the form that earned him last year’s Calder Trophy for the league’s top rookie. His plus/minus currently sits at minus-12 and his scoring pace is going to land him at 35 points for the season, short of the 48 he had in 2009-10. The Sabres may be finding out that the loss of Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder was a bit more painful than anticipated, and offseason pickup Shaone Morrisonn hasn’t exactly filled that void.

Goaltending: Ryan Miller has logged 20 wins, a 2.70 goals against average, and a .921 save percentage. Not bad, and on par with his performance the previous season. But look closer. Does Miller not look used up and tired, as Coach Lindy Ruff rolls him out there night after night after night? In fact, he played an unheard of 23 starts in a row before the coach finally pulled him after a bad start against the New York Islanders last Friday. What nobody is saying is that there is little confidence in backup goaltender Patrick Lalime.

Portland’s Jhonas Enroth was brought up here back in November when injuries and flu befell the starters. He played well. He stood tall to earn two dramatic wins in shootouts and gave the team a huge lift in the process. Yet, incredibly, he was sent down back to the minors. When does Enroth get his true shot as a back up goaltender with the Sabres?

Special Teams: The numbers show that Buffalo has been pretty average at this point. Twelfth in the league on the power play at 18.8 percent and 17th in penalty killing at 81.7 percent. They could certainly improve in the shorthanded goals department, with only two thus far this season, putting them low in league standings, as well as being at the bottom of the NHL in shorthanded goals given up, with nine.

Coaching/Management: How much longer can this “longest tenured” duo stay together, given the mediocrity that has been the end result? General manager Darcy Regier has cobbled together a defense that is porous, the highly touted core players aren’t scoring, and throughout this tandem’s entire era here in Buffalo, the Sabres have ridden on a wing and a prayer on the back of an elite starting goaltender. Should something happen to that goalie, the team’s chances are doomed.

Lastly, the lack of leadership from the very top exposes this team’s lack of accountability. Other than dollars and cents, owner Tom Golisano has lost interest in his team. Managing partner Larry Quinn hasn’t availed himself that much either this season, and that leaves the coach and GM running on auto pilot. Everyone is waiting to see what happens with the sale of the team, so look to the status quo until something happens with that.

The good news in all this? The Sabres still have a shot at making the playoffs, as fleeting as it may be. The bad news? This team is much closer to the cellar than to a true Cup contender. Play resumes next Thursday. Enjoy!

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