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Sabres Central

Sabres unable to finish
By Rick Anderson
November 30, 2002

Pens goalie Johan Hedberg gets ready to stop anything thrown his way as Penguins right winger Aleksey Morozov and Sabres left winger Jochen Hecht battle for the puck.
[AP Photo/Don Heupel]

It was the same old story for the Sabres this week. Lack of scoring. Ask Lindy Ruff why the Sabres are on yet another winless streak and he will say "They aren't finishing." Ruff has been racking his brains all season in an attempt to get back the offensive explosiveness the Sabres displayed in their first two games. Nothing seems to be working.

The scoring drought continued in Boston last Saturday in a 4-1 loss and Friday night they suffered another 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Penguins. In between, the Sabres managed to pick up a point in a 1-1 draw with Tampa Bay. That's 3 goals in 3 games. Certainly not good enough to pick up their 5th win of the season.

After picking up their first win in 12 games last Friday, the Sabres victory celebration ended at one game when they traveled to Bean town. The Bruins showed why they are the top team in the Northeast Division as former Sabre Steve Shields shut down the Sabres offense, just like every other netminder has been doing these days.

On Wednesday, Tampa Bay decided to give starting goalie Nikolai Khabibulin in favor of Kevin Hodson, who was playing only his second game of the season. To emphasize the slap in the face to the Sabres offense, Hodson hadn't won a game since November 1999 and hadn't even gotten a point for the Lightning since The last time he recorded at least an NHL tie was Nov. 26, 1999. His last game was a 5-1 loss to the Devils earlier in the year. The Sabres made Hodson look like Dominik Hasek in his prime.

To make the Sabres look even worse, Hodson had actually retired from hockey for two years, as he was an assistant coach in the Ontario Hockey League. Last May, the request came in from the Lightning to rejoin them and he accepted. The Sabres got a mere 23 shots off on Hodson and it took one of the Sabres infrequent scorers, Vaclav Varada, to finally get one past him.

Things were much different against the Penguins. Buffalo pelted Johan Hedberg with 44 shots. Before former Penguin Stu Barnes somehow got the puck behind Hedberg, it appeared as if the Sabres could shoot missiles at the goalie for years and still not score. Hedberg, who helped beat the Sabres in the Eastern Semi-finals a couple years ago, continued his mastery over the Sabres Friday night as he made sensational saves on about a dozen Sabres shots.

At the other end, Sabres goalie Martin Biron also was on his game. But another Sabre-killer, Alexei Kovalev, beat Biron twice and assisted on another goal. His shots beat Biron cleanly, but one has to wonder if Hedberg could have stopped them as he was stopping everything else.

Finishing is everything

Ruff realizes that the Sabres shooters have a tendency of making the opposing goalie look great.

"We make every goalie look like an All-Star," commented Ruff. "Hodson's a pretty good goaltender in the league after stopping by here."

The Lightning rested Khabibulin. The Pens gave owner and captain Mario Lemieux a night off. Teams now feel they can rest their top players and still come away with a victory in hand over the Sabres.

"Our key players - you can throw Miro in there, Stu, Grats, Timmy - if they don't finish we have no chance of winning," put in Ruff. "We had 40-plus shots and could have had 60. If our key players don't finish with the opportunities they have, then we have no chance of winning.''

"When you look at facing a team that doesn't have Khabibulin and you don't win and a team that doesn't have Straka and Lemieux in the lineup and you don't win, it's frustrating. It's not the work ethic and the skating and the hitting. It's the finish. It's just not there."

Hedberg does seem to put the Sabres shooters into a trance. He has been doing that since he helped propel the Penguins to the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals.

"We knew they were going to jump out hard," described Hedberg. "I felt like I was in the right spots, and played a patient game."

Kovalev terrorizes Biron

Kovalev was shooting bullets at Biron and the Sabres goalie didn't know how to stop them.

Kovalev, the way he shoots it, it's going to go right through you," described Biron. "He knows how to let it go. He's got a bomb. He's a great goal scorer."

Kovalev's "bombs" destroyed what was a scoreless tie and put the Sabres on the run. In the second period, the Pens had a two-man advantage for 17 seconds. There was a faceoff in the Sabres zone and the puck came right to Kovalev at the right point. He blasted it in and just 27 seconds later, with the Pens still on the powerplay, Kovalev once again got a shot off from the point and this time Jan Hrdina tipped it in. The goaltender's duel had suddenly become a one-side affair. Biron was left gasping at the speed of Kovalev's shot in the third period when he came in alone on the left side and flung a rifle shot that hit the top corner over Biron's shoulder.

Finally the Sabres got one past Hedberg when Barnes scored to make it a 3-1 game. The Pens scored into the empty net when Ville Nieminen finalized the scoring.

Injuries plague defense

Speaking about finished, that may just be the plight of the Sabres. With just 4 victories, they are in sole possession of last place overall in the league and things are not getting any brighter.

Defenseman Alexei Zhitnik is out for at least another 10 days with a broken foot. Henrik Tallinder has been out with a separated shoulder. The Sabres called up Rory Fitzpatrick to help the depleted defensive corp.

The Sabres road from here will continue to be rocky. Saturday they play the Leafs in Toronto, host the Mighty Ducks on Wednesday, go to New York to face the Rangers Friday and then come home to host the Capitals on Saturday.

Sabres Talk

The two goals in 27 seconds really did in the Sabres against the Pens.

"I don't know if the 27 seconds is what cost us the game," said Barnes. "The fact that we had as many chances as we did and didn't put them in the net was the big thing."

Without Mario in the lineup, the Pens picked it up and Kovalev took up the most slack.

"Last season we played quite a bit without Mario," recalled Kovalev. "There's some sense of responsibility, but we have a lot of balance. We knew we had to come up with a big effort."

"They kept looking around for 66, and they kept seeing 23 (Kovalev's number)," said Steve McKenna. "They couldn't do the math. It just threw them into a panic, and we took advantage."

The Sabres are back into their scoring funk and that means the winless streak is continuing.

"It's a tough time,"said Varada. "We're having a tough time scoring. A big goal would help us, but it seems every time we create something we get scored on right after."

"We got two goals over two games at home," Varada continued. "That's not good. We feel bad for the fans that they've got to go through it with us."

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