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Sabres Central

Blue Jackets sting Sabres 2-1
By Rick Anderson
January 24, 2001

Former Sabre meets present Sabre. Geoff Sanderson, who was plucked off the Sabres in the expansion draft, tries to put one past Dominik Hasek as Sabres defenseman James Patrick pokes the puck away from Sanderson.
[AP Photo/David Duprey]

These are the games a team cannot afford to lose. A home game against an expansion team is usually chalked up as a win, especially if your team is one of the better teams in the league. That certainly was not the case for the Buffalo Sabres as they hosted the Columbus Blue Jackets Tuesday night at HSBC Arena. The Blue Jackets took it to the Sabres, outworking them throughout the game and upsetting the home team 2-1.

This was as ugly as it gets. The Sabres, mired in a horrendous scoring slump, continued to shoot blanks as the only goal they could muster against the expansion Blue Jackets was scored by Erik Rasmussen near the beginning of the second period. After that, Columbus goalie Ron Tugnutt, who made 22 saves on the night, shut them down the rest of the way. It marked the third time in 3 years that the Sabres have lost a home game to an expansion team. Two years ago, they lost to Nashville, and last year it was Atlanta that thrashed the Sabres.

Scoring drought continues

The Sabres are mired in one of the worst scoring slumps in recent memory. The last three games have produced just 2 goals for the Sabres. Even worse than that is the powerplay, which has come up empty in the last 31 mand advantages. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff has never had a successful powerplay unit since he took over the reigns from Ted Nolan a few years ago.

At the start of this season, it seemed as if the Sabres finally were breaking out of the powerplay ineptness that has plagued them the past 3 years. In fact, Buffalo had one of the better powerplay units in the NHL at the beginning of the year. However, their current drought has the Sabres back in the basement for powerplays, just like they were last year when they were dead last in powerplay efficiency.

The Sabres had a golden chance to finally notch a powerplay goal. In the third period, the Sabres were awarded with a four-minute power play against the worst penalty-killing team in the league. This was it. If the Sabres couldn't score against the expansion Blue Jackets pathetic penalty kill unit, then they might as well pack it in. Buffalo could only muster 2 shots on goal, both of which were long 40-foot slap shots by Alexei Zhitnik. Tugnutt had no problem stopping those two. The rest of the time, the Sabres were chasing the puck back into their own end after the Blue Jackets cleared it.

"They didn't generate a scoring chance, I don't think, on that power play," said Tugnutt. "It wasn't just the kill itself, it was how impressive our kill was. Four minutes straight of power play, especially at that time of the game, third period with a one-goal lead, you've got to give our penalty killers a great deal of credit."

Ruff's challenge goes unanswered

Nothing Ruff seems to do has helped inginite the Sabres forwards as of late. He is back to changing the lines and defensive pairing. He called up Brian Campbell and benched Jason Woolley on defense and had even challenged them after their loss to Toronto Saturday night. The Sabres answered Ruff's challenge with another lackluster performance against a team they should have no problems with.

Vaclav Varada is tied up by Blue Jackets defenseman Lyle Odelein (4) while Stu Barnes is blocked by Jackets defenseman Deron Quint (7) in the background in first period action behind the Columbus net.
[AP Photo/David Duprey]

The physical game of Sabres has gone south lately. The number of big hits recorded by the Sabres could be counted on one hand, and that is for the last two home games. Ruff wanted his players to display more passion, more desire to go to the net, more of what it takes to win a game in the NHL. He hasn't gotten any of that for over a week. Buffalo was lucky to have won Friday against Florida when Denis Hamel's shot with 7 seconds left in that game enabled the Sabres to win 1-0. Without that laser shot by Hamel, the Sabres would have scored just 1 goal in 3 games.

"We have to create more chances," insisted Hasek. "Even in the third period, we're down one goal and we didn't create too much, even when we pulled our goalie. It's a bad sign."

Something has to be done immediately to get the Sabres out of their scoring funk. Whether it's Sabres GM Darcy Regier pulling the trigger on a block-buster deal that would infuse some scoring punch into the lineup, or some other major shakeup in the lineup instilled by Ruff, it is imperative that this situation be rectified before this Friday's game against the Boston Bruins.

The Sabres have 6 more games against weaker competition until they finally face a good team. The Sabres next 6 opponents are the Bruins, the Islanders, the Panthers, the Lightning the Rangers and then the Islanders again in that order. The next game against a legit team is on February 10 against the Ottawa Senators. The next 6 games could make or break the Sabres chances of gaining the top seed in the Northeast. The Sabres history over the last 3 years indicates big trouble for Ruff's crew.

Sabres get momentary lead

The Sabres actually led this game at one point. Rob Ray made a slick pass over to Rasmussen to get the Sabres forward alone on Tugnutt. Rasmussen deked the Columbus goalie and slipped a backhander past him to put the Sabres up 1-0 4:16 into 2nd period. That lead lasted a little over a minute and the Blue Jackets came back to tie it up.

"When you come out, and a line that's not expected to score goes out and scores, it's a huge boost," exclaimed Rasmussen. As for the goal 62 seconds later by Columbus, Rasmussen added that it "kills you a little bit."

Columbus put immediate pressure on the Sabres and they couldn't get the puck out of the zone. While buzzing around Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek like angry Blue Jackets, David Vyborny got the puck over to Serge Aubin around the left faceoff circle. Aubin took a blast that found the short side of the net and the game was suddenly tied and the Sabres knew that this wasn't going to be an easy win.

With around 3 minutes remaining in the second period, the Blue Jackets scored a goal that Hasek termed "lucky." Brian Campbell, who was called up from Rochester, tried to send a pass around the boards to Rasmussen, who was along the boards below the blue line. Rasmussen turned to take the puck and Brett Gardiner came up with it instead. Gardiner took a shot from the right point and it hit Aubin's stick and re-directed up over Hasek's left shoulder and top shelf into the net.

"That player (Aubin) he didn't even know that the puck bounced off his stick somewhere, and it went top shelf," said Hasek, who only made 16 saves in the game. "It was bad luck."

"That's a funny one," admitted Aubin. "The puck was coming right at me. I just tried to protect myself and it hit my stick and went top left shelf."

From that point on, the two teams played scoreless hockey, to the dismay of the 17,803 on hand at HSBC Arena.

Sabres Talk

This was the first win for the Blue Jackets since around Christmas.

"Before the game, the guys were saying we may have to win 2-1 because there's two goalies of this caliber," said Columbus coach Dave King. "They called it exactly right."

"Toward the end we got a little bit scrambly at times, but we didn't give them a really good opportunity inside," King said. "When we did, Tug was there. It was a very good road game."

Ruff had the team in the training room riding bicycles after the game. He indicated that he wasn't punishing them for their poor performance, that they normally ride the stationary bikes as a part of their post game conditioning. "That's normal procedure," said Ruff. "We ride after almost every home game. Some guys choose to do it right away, it's an 8-10 minute ride." Then he turned the subject to the game.

"We struggled offensively. We had numerous chances," Ruff commented. "We knew it would be a low-chance game. We had a lot of shots blocked, we muffed a lot of shots, we missed nets."

"I'm sure we are a better team," said Hasek. "If you don't play the whole 60 minutes, even these teams can beat us. We need points. Teams like Tampa Bay, Columbus, Atlanta - we should win 90 percent of these games. We need those points if we want to compete against teams like Toronto and Ottawa. We can't waste any more games."

Rasmussen, who scored his 8th of the season on a nice set up by Ray said, "There was a guy checking me in the neutral zone, and I was surprised he let me go. But Rob makes the entire play happen. He makes the pass and created the open ice. When you get the puck and it's just you and the goalie, it's a practice situation."

Ray, who set up the only Sabres goal said, "We've got plenty offense in the locker room and have to work harder."

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