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Sabres Central

Sabres join ranks with Bills in ineptness
By Rick Anderson
November 20, 2001

Thrashers rookie sensation Ilya Kovalchuk goes against Sabres Dman Richard Smehlik in the final period of Atlanta's 3-2 win over Buffalo.
[AP Photo/Gregory Smith]

There must be something in the water. How else can you explain what has happened to Buffalo's two professional teams this year? Something must have been added to the water that is taking the strength away from the players who don the uniforms of the Buffalo Sabres and the Buffalo Bills. Both teams have experienced an utter collapse in their respected seasons and there is no other reason for it except for some kind of drugging.

Monday night the Buffalo Sabres continued their fall from grace as they lost to yet another inept team, the Atlanta Thrashers, 3-2. By beating the "superior" Sabres team, the Thrashers won their 4th of the season to go to 4-12-2-2. Atlanta was the worst team in the league prior to Monday's game. However, the Sabres can make a claim for that dubious title as they now have tied the Thrashers with the most losses in the entire league with 12.

The Sabres lost their 4th straight game against a team the should have blown out like the last time they bombarded them 8-0. Buffalo has now lost 9 out of its last 12. Pathetic is too kind a word to describe the Sabres play. With Buffalo fans frantically trying to find some hope to cling to as their Buffalo Bills are now 1-8, the Sabres are not giving them any relief from their misery. Fans may have to look elsewhere if they want to root for any team that is somewhat respectable.

The Sabres spotted the Thrashers 2 goals in the first period and then stormed back to tie in the third, only to have it evaporate for good soon after. Martin Biron has been perplexed as of late. He just can't seem to get into the rhythm that he had a couple years ago when he replace Dominik Hasek for almost half a season and led the league with 6 shutouts. These days, Biron is hard pressed to shutout a team for one period.

"We're all trying to find our game, find our groove," reflected Biron, who made 22 saves in the game.

He allowed two rather soft goals in the first period by Ilya Kovalchuk and Tomi Kallio. Buffalo has never won a game this season when the opposition has scored the first goal. On Kallio goal, Biron seemed to stick to the post as Kallio wrapped around and beat Biron to the far side.

Thrasher goalie Milan Hnilicka, who had been pulled the night before against the Rangers, looked like he was going to shut the Sabres down as he made incredible saves. He stopped 13 Buffalo shots in the first period and 7 in the second. All told, Hnilicka would make 30 saves in the game.

Sabres comeback is doused

Eric Boulton, who is not your everyday scorer, finally got the Sabres on the board when he flipped the puck on goal and it got past Hnilicka and into the net at 2:55 of the final period. Then the Sabres got a huge break when Hnilicka "threw" his stick at Tim Connolly when Connolly was coming in for a golden opportunity. The refs gave Buffalo a penalty shot.

Thrashers goaltender Milan Hnilicka stops Buffalo's J.P. Dumont point blank in first period action.
[AP Photo/Gregory Smith]

"I just lost my grip," contested Hnilicka. "I think it hit his stick and somehow went behind the net. They shouldn't have called it. It wasn't intentional."

Originally, Ruff was not going to have Connolly take the shot, but the refs insisted that he was the one who had to take it. Connolly took the puck at center ice, made a couple of nifty moves to get Hnilicka out of position and he put it in the back of the net. Connolly, the man Buffalo got in the Michael Peca trade, hadn't scored a goal in 12 games and was halfway in Ruff's doghouse when he tied the game up.

"I haven't been scoring," admitted Connolly. "I just wanted to do whatever I could to score. But when you get a momentum boost like that, you've got to take advantage of it."

With the momentum suddenly shifted to Buffalo, the Thrashes ended all that in a hurry when they came back just 16 seconds later to take the lead for good.

Connolly's celebration was brought to a bitter halt.

"It felt great for about 30 seconds, until they came right back and scored on us." said a dejected Connolly about the Thrasher ripping the momentum right out of the Sabres grasp.

With the air let out of the arena after the Connolly goal, Brian Pothier came in and shot the puck at Biron from a bad angle. Biron couldn't hang onto it and Tony Hrkac was right there to ram it home. Biron has got to make those key stops. Hasek used to, and Biron was able to in years past. This year, Biron is playing like an awestruck rookie.

"The guy was standing right there, and it bounced right on his stick," described Biron. "We gained a lot of confidence with that penalty shot. Tim made an unbelievable move, one of the best moves I've seen on a penalty shot. That was big for us."

One of the biggest problems the Sabres suddenly find themselves is their goaltending is below par. Ruff can't depend on Bob Essensa, who has lost all three games he's started. Down on the farm in Rochester, Mika Noronen is having even more problems than Biron. The answer may be to trade for a proven veteran who can help stabilize the sinking Sabres ship. Unless if Biron gets a grip and starts playing the way he did a couple years ago, the Sabres may be out of the playoff race by Christmas.

"When you lose momentum like they (the Thrashers) did, you want to get the puck in deep and forecheck," said Biron. "That's what they did."

The Sabres thought they had it tied up with under 8 minutes remaining. Miroslav Satan got a backhand off that went over Hnilicka shoulder and bounced off the crossbar, came down on Hnilicka'back, hit the goalie's sake and then bounced off the left post before it was cleared out of the crease by a Thrasher defender.

"I thought it was a goal," declared Satan. "I was ready to raise my arms, but I didn't see the light go on."

As Biron says, "It's tough to buy a bounce (these days)."

It will only get tougher now for the Sabres as they play the division leading Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday and the surprising Calgary Flames on Friday, both home games. Maybe that's with the Sabres need, a team they have to raise their playing level to in order to compete.

Sabres Talk

With most teams, the dismal start the Sabres are having would fuel rumors of Ruff being replaced at coach. But Ruff has developed a harmonious relationship with General Manager Darcy Regier and the Sabres Rigas family ownership. Regier's hands have been literally tied by the Rigas frugal approach of handling player contracts and as a result, Ruff doesn't have as good of a team as he has had in the past. Even so, Ruff acknowledges that he has to find a way to get back on track.

"We're in a world of hurt right now, "admitted Ruff. "We've gotta find a way to win games any way we can."

Stu Barnes has had a rough go of it himself in his first role as a team captain. But he is trying to find the positives in all the gloom.

"The way it happened, to give up a 2-0 lead like we did and for the guys to stay focused, work hard and tie it up," said Barnes. "Guys are frustrated, but the only way to get out of situations like this is through hard work," captain Stu Barnes said. "It's all you can do."

Hrkac, who scored the game winning goal, had a much different view of the game.

"We were in control most of the game," Hrkac said. "To see it slip away again was like deja vu. We did not want it to happen again."

Atlanta coach Curt Fraser wants to use this as a stepping stone for the club.

"Hopefully, this will build a little confidence," Fraser said. "Hopefully, we will get over the hump somehow."

Fraser's captain, Ray Ferraro, sat this one out with a sore back and a bruised ego.

"It's very difficult," said Fraser about his captain. "He's our leader. But he knows he's not doing enough. He just needed a night away from game."

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