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Sabres Central

Who's going to stop the bleeding?
By Rick Anderson
April 14, 2002

SABRES MUGGING! Everyone is mugging the Sabres these days. Here Leafs defenseman Bryan McCabe puts Sabres right winger J.P. Dumont into a headlock during third period action. The Leafs beat the Sabres 3-2. .
[AP Photo/Don Heupel]

The Buffalo Sabres are suffering from massive hemorrhaging. Emergency medical attention is needed immediately to save the patient. Unfortunately it appears that a rescue team will not arrive on the scene in time.

The Sabres bleeding continued Friday night as their winless streak climbed to ten. The Toronto Maple Leafs were in town to inflict another wound on the critically injured Sabres. A three-goal second period resulted in the Sabres third straight home loss as the Leafs won 3-2.

The Sabres current winless streak could be the fatal injury to a team that was in critical condition even before the season started. They haven't recorded a point since November 1 when they tied Edmonton 1-1. Since then, they have lost 5 straight and no relief is in sight.

Sabres suffer from massive head wound

It all started with the arrest of Sabres owner John Rigas and his two sons right after the last season for fraud and other charges. The fans and the team went into immediate shock and trauma from the head wounds. The fans have been staying away from HSBC Arena in droves and the players seem to be playing in a state of shock. While coming off two impressive wins to start the season, the Sabres may have been discouraged with the small crowds and that, along with the clouded future of the team, was a major reason for their despondency. It affected their play and the Sabres have been in a downward spiral ever since into the abyss. They are dead last in the NHL with a record of 3-10-3.

It is apparent that both coach Lindy Ruff and GM Darcy Regier are not going to be replaced this season. With the league still searching for a new owner to take over the team, such an upheaval would only add to the disarray of the team.

Bettman tries to comfort the dying patient

League commissioner Gary Bettman came to Buffalo on Tuesday to talk to the Sabres personnel and talk with potential owners. Then he had a press conference where he tried to address the health of the Sabres franchise. His words did not heal the mortally wounded team.

"I know the league believes in the Buffalo market for NHL hockey, we believe in the Buffalo Sabres," Bettman tried to reassure Sabres fans and media. "We're not doing anything other than making 100 percent of our efforts to make sure this franchise has a bright future here."

"We want the Sabres here," Bettman said. "We don't think they belong anywhere else. You can't find an instance where we talked with anybody else outside keeping the team in Buffalo because it never happened."

Bettman did show concern about the low attendance at Sabres home games.

"I'm not setting any deadlines, I'm not issuing any threats, I'm not issuing any ultimatums, but I am disappointed," admitted the NHL Commissioner. "This is an important time for this franchise to show the support demonstrated high. As I've said repeatedly, it's a lot easier for us to operate this franchise without an owner than it is without season ticket holders."

As for the ownership bids, Bettman said it is proceeding at a smooth pace. However, Bettman has only received one bid, from Mark Hamister, and didn't give any indication as to who the leading candidate was.

"I haven't gotten to the point that I know there's a bid I'm going to accept, but I'm optimistic that we're on the road to get there," Bettman said. "I don't want to give you a timetable, but I think we're much closer to the end than to the start of the process," Bettman said,

Week of doom and gloom

The Sabres returned home after going 0-4-2 on their longest road trip of the season. It was hoped that they could right their ship and start a winning streak in the semi-comfortable surroundings of HSBC Arena. Instead, their losing streak continued with losses to Atlanta, Boston and Toronto.

Like they did the week before in Columbus, the Sabres roared to a 2-0 lead, only to blow it in a 6-4 loss to the formerly league doormat Thrashers. Former Sabre defenseman Richard Smehlik came back to help beat his old team. He also put up a $1,000 reward if the Thrashers beat the Sabres.

"He put $1,000 on the board for the win so the guys could go out and have some fun,'' Thrashers' coach Curt Fraser said. "We wanted to make him pay.''

"It's true,'' admitted Smehlik. "It's exciting beating your old team."

Next on the list of Sabres assassins were the red hot Boston Bruins. They came into Buffalo leading the Eastern Conference and it took only 21 ticks of the clock for the Bruins to score on Sabres goalie Martin Biron. Joe Thornton put one past Biron and they took a 4-1 lead before the Sabres scored two late goals to make the score more respectable.

The Leafs, before Friday night, had the worst record in Buffalo during the past 11 years of any NHL team. Since 1991, the Leafs had a 1-13-4 record in Buffalo. In fact, February 17 was the date of their last two victories in Western New York. On Feb. 17, 1991, the Leafs beat the Sabres 3-0 in the old Memorial Auditorium. On the same date in 1999, Toronto beat the Sabres in overtime on a Matts Sundin goal. It was time for Toronto to turn over a new leaf.

For the first period, it appeared as if the Sabres were finally going to win one as Stu Barnes put the Sabres ahead 1-0. Barnes got a shot off from the right faceoff circle that got through Leafs goalie Eddie Belfour with 4 minutes left in the period.

Belfour played an outstanding game, reminiscent of the 1999 SCF series when his Dallas Stars won the Cup against the Sabres. He made 35 saves and was outstanding in the third period when blocked 15 shots.

The Leafs opened the game up in the second stanza when the Sabres played a majority of the period shorthanded. Rhett Warrener took 3 straight penalties and the Leafs finally capitalized when Mikael Renberg scored the equalizer with 6 minutes left in the period. Biron made the initial save, but was way out of position when Renberg lifted a shot to the open right half of the cage. Biron got his glove on it, but wasn't able to prevent the goal. With Warrener once again in the box, former Sabres Alexander Mogilny scored one from the same exact position. Biron was out to the left, leaving a wide open net for Mogilny to tap a rebound in. Biron had no chance on either of the first two goals.

With the Sabres on a rare powerplay late in the second period, Ruff had Tim Connolly at the point. The youngster, who has been prone to giving up breakaways on mishandling the puck, did so once again to Mogilny. Mogilny sped into the Buffalo zone alone on Biron and put the puck over Biron's shoulder to give the Leafs a huge 3-1 lead going into the final period.

Connolly attempted to make up for his sin when scored on a rebound of a J.P. Dumont shot with 11:20 remaining in the final period. However, the Sabres could not get the puck past Belfour again and they had lost their fifth straight, and 10th game without a win.

"We'd play 10 games in a row if we could just win one," uttered Chris Gratton after the game. "It doesn't matter how tired we are. We have to forget about this one. This one was a heartbreaker."

Bleak future

The Sabres future is indeed bleak. Mired in last place overall in the league, the Sabres have nine points to their credit. Their 3-game homestand was a complete disaster and now they must play 3 out of 4 games on the road. The Sabres go to Ottawa Saturday, play the Devils in New Jersey Tuesday and return home against the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team that has given them fits the last two years. They close the week in Boston.

The Sabres waived defenseman Jason Woolley earlier in the week and there were no takers. Woolley had only 3 points this season and it is believed that his contract of $1.4 million along with his lack of scoring led to the Sabres decision. Woolley has not been assigned to the Rochester Amerks and his future with the club is uncertain. The Sabres had to take an action to shake up the players and Woolley was the fall guy.

While the Sabres immediate future is gloomy, their long-term future is even bleaker. Without a new owner in place to give the patient a infusion of blood in the form of money, this team may not be in Buffalo next season. The patient is hemorrhaging and there is no doctor in sight.

Sabres Talk

Belfour continued to be a thorn in the Sabres side. He made several spectacular saves against the Sabres Friday night and kept the Leafs in the game early.

"We're trying to get our game back on track,'' Belfour said. "We had a big overtime win and tonight we had to make sure that we came out and played hard to get another two points.''

Mogilny loves to play in Buffalo, especially against them these days.

"I don't care. It's just another hockey game,'' Mogilny said about the Leafs upcoming game against former goalie Curtis Joseph and the Wings Saturday. "We need something to get going. We haven't had too many breaks go our way. We need to build on something, so it was nice to see.''

Over in the Sabres dressing room, things were a lot more sober.

"If you break it all down, it's the prime scoring chances we missed on our power play, the rebounds we got and didn't put away, the two-on-ones we missed," Ruff said. "We skated as well as we skated during this ordeal we're going through, and we made some damned nice plays. We just didn't finish. Our skill didn't finish."

Gratton, one of the only Sabres who has continued to play solid hockey, was disappointed over another loss.

"It's nice to have a full building," said Gratton. "It was an enthusiastic crowd, even though there were a lot of Toronto fans here tonight. We wanted to get our fans into it and get off to a good start, but then we shot ourselves in the foot again. That takes our crowd out of it and gets Toronto's crowd into it."

"We took a couple of penalties we didn't need to take,'' Gratton continued. "Everybody should be aware, especially us in the predicament we're in.''

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