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Sabres Central

Time to panic after Sabres third straight loss?
By Rick Anderson
November 18, 2001

The Bruins' Jozef Stumpel tries to impede Sabres forward Maxim Afinogenov during first period action. Afinogenov was the only Sabre to score in their last two games.
[AP Photo/Winslow Townson]

It's time to hit the panic button. The Buffalo Sabres lost their third straight game as they put up another putrid performance in Bean Town. The Boston Bruins beat the Sabres 3-1 as Buffalo got its 8th defeat in 11 games. The Sabres management has to address its current dreadful plight before they fall completely out of playoff contention.

It will be no easy fix. Addressing the many problems with this team will be like trying to solve all the problems the country of Afghanistan is now facing. Not one remedy will cure all. It will have to be a multi-faced and prolonged action. But time is of the essence; any delay could curtail the season even at this early stage.

The Sabres had plenty of opportunity to win this game with the Bruins. The problem is they didn't want it. The intensity level of the Sabres has dropped immensely. If you used that noise meter they have on the scoreboard at HSBC Arena, the intensity level the Sabres are displaying wouldn't even register.

The Sabres mess goes from top to bottom. At the top level, the Rigas family has not done anything to improve the team over last year. In fact, the loss of several key veterans may be costing the Sabres leadership not only on the ice but in the locker room. Comparing last year's team to the current one, there is not too much that changed. The big difference is the loss of Dominik Hasek in goal. Martin Biron was doing a commendable job replacing Hasek until two weeks ago, but then Biron's confidence level seemed to be shattered as he started letting in numerous weak goals. The backup goalie, Bob Essensa, has yet to win a game. On Saturday night against the Bruins, he allowed two soft goals to Jamie Rivers, a player who had only nine times in his previous six seasons.

The biggest factor in the Sabres sudden collapse is an utter lack of offensive production. The powerplay is nonexistent. Buffalo had a huge break against the Bruins when Boston's top player, Joe Thornton went ballistic on Alexei Zhitnik's head late in the first period. Zhitnik had taken Thornton into the corner boards and Thornton came up swinging, giving Zhitnik a sucker punch in the back of his head. Zhitnik fell down on all fours and Thornton came up behind him and started wailing away, smashing his fists into the back of Zhitnik's helmet. Zhitnik had his front tooth chipped by Thornton's thuggery. The refs threw the book at Thornton, giving him a two minute minor for instigating, a 5-minute fighting major, a 10-minute misconduct, and a game-misconduct.

The Sabres couldn't have asked Santa for a better present! Not only did Thornton's childish actions take the best Boston player off the ice, the Sabres had a 7-minute powerplay. It was like giving a baby a F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter, they didn't know what to do with it.

Over three minutes had gone by on the man advantage and the Sabres weren't even close to putting the puck past Boston goalie Bryon Dafoe. Then Dafoe gave the Sabres a two-man advantage when he flipped the puck out of play, getting a delay of game penalty. With 5-on-3, the Sabres were finally able to convert.

Miroslav Satan took a shot on Dafoe, which he stopped. However, Maxim Afinogenov was standing to the goalie's right side and he put the rebound past Dafoe. That was it for the Buffalo offense. Lights out!

Lack of a dominating goalie

To lay the blame of the Sabres current plight on the mediocre goaltending would be unfair. Sure, it has not been up to the high level of excellence commanded by the great Dominator, but it really hasn't been that bad. In years past, Hasek had been known for giving up one or two soft goals in games. Usually, the Sabres were able to overcome that and come out ahead most of the time. For the past four years, Buffalo has not been a scoring juggernaut. But they had been able to squeak out 1-0, 2-1 wins in many games. Now, however, with goaltending just a tad below the level Hasek displayed, the offense has to come up and score more goals. Scoring one goal in two games is not going to win many games, no matter who is manning the pipes.

Essensa has gone 0-3 so far. He is not the answer for even the backup goalie. The two goals that Rivers scored against him were weak. The only goal that was legit was the final goal scored by Bill Guerin late in the second period.

Something has to be done, whether it means bringing up Mika Noronen and getting him into the mix, or trading for a more experienced goaltender. Whatever the answer is, it has to be done immediately. Biron has to get a little competition for his No. 1 goalie position to light a fire under him, for he is capable of playing a lot better than he has been. Putting Essensa in the nets is definitely not the answer.

Who's to blame for the collapse?

The finger pointing has surely begun in the locker room. The Sabres would not be a normal team if it weren't taking place. Someone has to stand up and take control of the team before it leads to complete anarchy. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff apparently has lost the control of his team. He can't seem to light a fire under them when they play teams like Atlanta, Columbus and Florida. Getting up for a so-called "weaker" team is the responsibility of both the coaches and the players. These players are paid professionals. If they can't come up with a solid effort against the league's has-beens, then they do not belong on the ice. On the other hand, a coach's is responsible for motivating his players, giving them those words to fire them up to play at the very top of their level. Ruff and his coaching staff has failed miserably on that account.

The Sabres forwards have to start lighting the lamp. The powerplay is even worse than it was the past two years when it was near the bottom of the league. Satan has 8 goals, but he has to be cranking them out like he did a few years ago when he netted 40. Next is J.P. Dumont, who seems to be the only Sabre forward playing up to the potential he displayed last year. Afinogenov is starting to find the scoring touch with 7. The biggest disappointment so far is the man the Sabres got for Hasek, Slava Kozlov. Kozlov has 5 tallies, but 3 of them were flukes. Kozlov has to start pulling his weight and soon.

Chris Gratton is another extreme disappointment. Not only is his goal production low with 3, but he hasn't been using his physical size to push people around like the Sabres need him to do. Curtis Brown has shown some flashes of offensive ability, but his 4 goals certainly is not enough. Then there is Tim Connally, one of the two players the Sabres acquired from the Islanders for Michael Peca. Connally has shown some offensive moves, but he only has two goals and, this being his third season, he has to start producing.

In the final analysis of the Sabres' plight, it comes down to coaching. The Sabres have players here who can score but are snake-bitten. The coaching staff has to find ways to improve that production and get the team jelling. So far this season, that is not happening.

Sabres Talk

The talk in the Sabres dressing room is not too giddy these days. The players are looking into the mirror and not liking what they see.

"Nobody is happy around here," bemoaned Satan. "We didn't picture a season like this. Every season has frustration, and this is it hopefully."

Ruff seems ready to take the bull by the horns and try solving the Sabres scoring drought.

"We're having a tough time scoring goals," Ruff admitted. "I have no problem with the way we're competing in our own end and eliminating chances. The thing we have to start doing is paying a bigger price to score goals. It's up to me to get that aggressive mind-set back."

Rivers, who usually plays defense, was put in as a forward and it paid big dividends for the Bruins.

"That's just the way it goes when things aren't going well," said Jay McKee. "There are no words to explain it. It just goes to show anyone can score. Who's Jamie Rivers? We've got guys more skilled with better shots. We're just having a tough time. The frustration level is really high. Everyone wants to win. It might look like there's a lack of passion, but I'm going to disagree with that. I know every guy here wants to win."

Meanwhile, the Bruins are one of the hottest teams in the East right now, winning their third straight. Rivers was flowing with enthusiasm after the game.

"Scoring goals is fun, but my paycheck isn't for scoring goals," Rivers admitted. "I just try not to be a liability. I was just kind of trying to use the element of surprise on that one. I'm certainly not disappointed."

Dafoe was caught up in the upsurging Rivers flood of goals.

"When he scored that first one, I looked at our bench and everyone was up," said a jubilant Dafoe. "It's great to see a guy like that take advantage."

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