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Sabres Central

Sabres have meltdown in front of Caps
By Rick Anderson
December 22, 2000

Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek does the splits to make a save on a Peter Bondra shot. The other Sabres in on the play are Sabres defenseman Rhett Warrener (4) and Dave Andreychuk (52).
[AP Photo/David Duprey]

The Sabres had the edge in the first period, but their blades suddenly went blunt and the Capitals stuck it to them, winning 3-1. The Sabres main thorn in their side when these two team clash, Steve Konowalchuk, scored the tying goal in the second period which put a dagger in the Sabres heart.

"They basically outworked us," Lindy Ruff said in the post game conference. "They had better legs. There's no way of getting around it."

The Sabres opened the scoring when Rob Ray scored his fourth career goal against the Capitals. That's more goals than he's scored against any other NHL team in his long career. Ray was Johnny on the spot when he raced in on Caps goalie, Olaf Kolzig and plucked in the rebound of Alexei Zhitnik's shot from the point, 3:12 into the game. From there, it was all downhill for the Sabres.

"I got an opportunity when the puck came out there and kind of muscled it in," described Ray.

Sabres pushed around

After the first period, the Capitals decided to come out and be more physical with the Sabres. Just like the Philadelphia Flyers had in their two games with Buffalo, the Capitals pushed the Sabres off their game.

"We had an awful first period," said Caps coach Ron Wilson. "We decided to mix up our lines just to get a spark. Basically, it worked well with all the lines."

Konowalchuk, who has been the main thorn in the Sabres side whenever these two teams clash, was doing his usual ratting things up, similar to the way Matthew Barnaby does, before he got the Sabres off their game and scored the goal that burst the Sabres bubble. He had earlier gotten into it with Maximum Afinogenov and was looking to start something with almost any Sabre who would get rattled. Ray started to take Konowalchuk on but the linesmen immediately got between the two. The man who had separated Michael Peca's shoulder last year, knew that he could get under the Sabres players' skin.

With four minutes gone by in the second period, Adam Oates passed the puck to Dmitri Khristich at the right faceoff circle. Konowalchuk headed directly in front of Hasek and Khristich fed him perfectly. With Hasek covering Khristich, it left the far side open and Konowalchuk had no trouble tying the game.

The Sabres seemed to lose the real focus of the game. Instead of trying to create chances and go to the net, they were running around trying to go after Konowalchuk and other Caps players who were rankling them.

Age catching up with Hasek?

Hasek has had a very frustrating season thus far. He has won his share of games, posted 3 shutouts and looked like the Dominator of old....at times. The main problem is that Hasek has yet to find the consistency and the quickness that made many hockey experts rate him as one of the top goalies of all time. He has never regained his all-world form since he first injured his groin almost two years ago. Last season, he was only mediocre, especially in the first round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. This year, Hasek has not been able to keep up his cat-like reflexes game in and game out.

Curtis Brown is tripped up and takes to the air after Caps D man Dmitri Mironov lays the lumber on the Sabres center..
[REUTERS Photo/Joe Traver ]

Thursday night, in the second half of the home-and-home series between the Sabres and the Caps, Hasek's play was subpar at best. He began to unravel early in the second period. Richard Smehlik coughed up the puck in the Sabres zone and the Caps' Trent Whitfield scooped it up and rifled a pass over to Peter Bondra. Hasek's fellow countryman took a wicked shot 25 feet out that somehow beat the Sabres No. 1 goalie. Hasek seemed to take his eyes off the puck momentarily when he was first checking the whereabouts of Bondra and then looked back to Whitfield. Suddenly the puck was in the net and Hasek assumed a position that is becoming all too familiar to Sabres fans - on his knees with his head down in disgust.

"I didn't even see the puck," claimed Bondra. "I just saw everybody putting their hands up and it ended up to be a goal, ended up to be a big goal."

Set the clock ahead three minutes and Hasek was in that beaten position once again, arms in front of him and head face down on the ice in aversion. Once again, it was Smehlik losing the puck this time to Bondra at the Sabres blue line. Bondra wasted no time in shooting the puck at Hasek, but he blocked it with his skate. However, the puck came right out to Andrei Nikolishin, who slammed it into the open side. Game over - Hasek face down on the ice in mental anguish.

The big question now facing Ruff is how often should he play Hasek? Should he split the time equally with backup Martin Biron, who was brilliant in the nets the night before against the Capitals, or should he even consider giving Biron the majority of the playing time until Hasek gets out of his funk, if he ever does.

Blue Christmas

If the Sabres are to prevent having a Blue Christmas, they have to turn their game around 180 degrees from what they played the last two games. When Rob Ray is the only player who can score for the club, the Sabres are indeed in trouble. Curtis Brown has turned into the biggest bust of the season, closely followed by Miroslav Satan. Brown has played only a couple of solid games this season and seems like his mind is elsewhere this season. Maybe he's waiting for Michael Peca to come back. That could prove to be a very long wait.

Satan has found the back of the net more recently with the addition of J.P. Dumont, but he is nowhere the pace he sent two years ago when he scored 40 goals.

In order to prevent a bleak Christmas, the Sabres suddenly find their game Saturday afternoon with the San Jose Sharks almost a must win. To lose two straight games right before the big holiday could cause some serious depression and lead into a prolonged slump when the team gets back into action next week. After the players spend Christmas day with their families, the Sabres take to the ice again Tuesday when they face the Pittsburgh Penguins, who may have Mario Lemieux on the ice. Then they play back-to-back games against Ottawa at home Friday and against the Islanders in New York the next night. One night off, and the Sabres are playing at home again against the Boston Bruins on New Years night at HSBC Arena. In fact, beginning with Friday's game with Ottawa, the Sabres are faced with the grueling schedule of 6 games in 9 nights.

Sabres Talk

To say that Ruff was not in the Christmas spirit was an understatement.

"They (the Penguins) played a little bit smarter, they dumped a lot of pucks in and played a dump and chase game," Ruff said. "We refused to dump it in, played a lot of one-on-one hockey. Our passing was horrendous, which really eliminated any transition game."

"If you look at the first 6 minutes of the third period, both teams didn't get much. We have a two-on-one and don't get a shot on goal. They come back on their first chance in the period and score. You know we just dropped off the map after that."

Ruff seemed determined to address the problem areas on the team as soon as the next practice.

"I think there are some areas where our team needs to really start paying attention to," Ruff contended. "Our power play has started to slip a little bit. You start going in there with one hand on your stick, you start poking at pucks instead of finishing bodies and we didn't win the one-on-one battles. There wasn't execution. The guys we had on the ice went in, they fished for pucks. Those are bad habits that we've got to correct immediately."

"We had a couple of great opportunities and didn't take advantage of them. If you don't get them down, they are a tough team to get chances (against)."

Hasek was critical of the team for the third period meltdown.

"In the third period we had no life on the ice," said Hasek, who should include himself in that statement. "They played hard for 60 minutes. We went hard for, maybe, 35 minutes. That was the difference. The problem was our effort. I don't think it was there."

"Early in the game we were able to get on top of them and create a forecheck," said Ray. "But I don't think there were any lines in the third period that got much of a forecheck. It was totally gone after a while. We got a little away from our gameplan a little bit and started working more on finishing checks rather than playing the puck, and that's a team that's going to capitalize on your mistakes because they have too much offensive power."

The Caps were ecstatic about being able to manhandle the Sabres in their own arena.

"It was kind of a microcosm of our season so far," said the Sabres-killer, Caps goalie Olaf Kolzig who made 20 saves. "The first period was almost like we started the season, scrambling and maybe a little out of control. The second period we start to get things going and start to play in unison and the third period it just looks like we're on cruise control."

"Playing back-to-back nights, you have a tendency to come out slow," Kolzig continued. "We're an older team, so it takes a while to get our legs going. The guys stayed positive and basically we just took over in the second period."

Bondra, the Capitals leading scorer, lit the Roman candle that blew up in Hasek's face.

"Before the game everybody knows, it's going to be tight," explained Bondra. "You're not going to score, either team, a lot of goals with the two best goalies in the league. It's just going to be a question of who's going to be more patient. Tonight, we are the little bit more patient team."

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