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Sabres Central

Late Zhitnik penalty devastates Sabres
By Rick Anderson
October 18, 2000

What do the Sabres and the Bills have in common this season? Both won their first two games and then went into a 3-game funk. The Sabres followed the Bills path as they won their first two games at home and looked like they were ready to romp this season. Then came their Rocky Road Horror Show and they lost two out west in Edmonton and Vancouver. Coming back to the East, the Sabres hoped to right their ship. Instead, they did exactly what the Bills did, lose their third straight game as the Montreal Canadiens beat the Sabres 4-3 Tuesday night in Montreal.

The Canadiens' Trevor Linden scores Montreal's second goal of the game on a power play as Dominik Hasek glances back at the puck in the net.
[AP PHOTO/Andre Forget]

Alexei Zhitnik committed a mortal sin when he took a high sticking penalty at 18:09 in the third, meaning the Canadiens would have the power play for the remainder of the game. Zhitnik, who was skating down the right side with the puck inside the Canadien zone, had a mental blackout when he decided that going after Andrei Markov's head with his stick was more important than working the puck in for a possible scoring play.

With only 56 seconds remaining in the contest and the Canadiens power play in full swing, Patrice Brisebois took a blast from the point and Martin Rucinsky tipped it past Dominik Hasek to seal the Sabres fate.

The fact that it was Zhitnik who's penalty cost the Sabres the game was not lost on Sabres' coach Lindy Ruff.

"That was an undisciplined penalty late in the game that cost us the game," retorted Ruff. "We can't take stupid penalties like that on the road."

"It was a stupid penalty," admitted Zhitnik. "There's nothing I can say. I wasn't thinking. That was the wrong time, wrong place. We played hard to come back from two goals down. You can't take a penalty like that."

Indeed, if Zhitnik had used his head instead of his stick, the Sabres most likely would have gotten at least 1 point out of the 3-game road trip. As it is, they limp back home empty handed with their tail between their legs. Ruff's announced goal for a fast start to the season is now in the dumpster along with the Sabres' special teams play. Back to the drawing board for Ruff.

Buffalo had battled back twice in this one, with Stu Barnes being the Sabres top performer, scoring twice. His last goal was a beauty as he skated in front of Montreal goalie Jose Theodore and kept the puck until Theodore was out of position before he shot it into the empty side. It was a short handed goal and tied the game at 3-3. Barnes also scored the Sabres first goal when he cut the Canadiens' lead in half midway through the first period.

The importance of special teams play must be emphasized this season, as the refs are calling everything and then some. Five of the seven goals scored happened when one team had the power play. On four, the goals were power play goals. On the fifth, Barnes had his shorthanded goal.

The Sabres Erik Rasmussen committed one of the Sabres undisciplined penalties when he elbows the Habs Jim Campbell in the first period.
[AP PHOTO/Paul Chiasson]

Hasek is not having the season he had envisioned. First, he missed a game and a half with a sprained ligament he suffered in the first period of the season opener. When he did return to the nets for the start of the road trip, his timing has not been all there. Hasek has made several of his patiented saves during the three game losing stretch, but he is nowhere near the form that has won him the acclaim of being the best goalie in this modern era. In fact, the 11 goals that Hasek allowed during that horror show of a road trip has people wondering if he is ready for prime time. The three power play goals scored upon him Tuesday were not his fault completely. His defense and penalty kill teams in front of him did not live up to their end of the bargain. However, Hasek has been know as one of the best penalty-kill goalies to ever grace the crease area. He has not lived up to that reputation this season.

Dainius Zubrus was the biggest thorn in Hasek's side as he put two past the All-World goalie. Zubrus now has netted 5 goals in the last two Canadien games.

"It seems everything I touch turns into a goal," Zubrus said. "I'm always at the right place at the right time."

Zubrus got the Canadiens on the board with only 3:13 gone in the contest. It was a power play goal. The Habs upped the score to 2-0 when they went on another power play. This time is was Trevor Linden who lit the lamp for Montreal half way through the first. A little over a minute later, Barnes put the Sabres on the board for their first goal in over a game. Barnes was one of the few Sabres who put any kind of effort against the Canadiens.

Zubrus then stuck it to Hasek at the 12:28 mark of the second period to put the Habs two goals in front again. This was the only non-power play goal of the game for Montreal.

Then a miracle happened. The Goat of the game, Zhitnik not only got a shot off that didn't go up into the stands 30 feet over the net, but he actually scored a goal! It was Zhitnik's first goal of the season (and it may be his last the way he's playing). The $2.5 million dollar bust scored his aberrant goal at 14:40 of the second period.

Six minutes into the final period, the Sabres once again got a penalty, but this time Barnes put on a show and produced a highlight film shorthanded goal to tie the game. With the game headed into overtime, Zhitnik went brain dead and used his stick as a weapon to prevent the Sabres from gaining any points from their horror road trip.

The Sabres return to the (hopefully) friendly confines of HSBC Arena Friday for a game against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

After meeting with NHL officials today, the league suspended Zhitnik for 4 games for his hit on Markov. Maybe the league should have added another 4 games for idiocy. If Lindy Ruff has any smarts, he'll tell Zhitnik to stay away from the Arena Friday night as there is a chance he'll get lynched if any angry Sabres fans spot him in the hallways.

Sabres Talk

"We took a very undisciplined penalty at the end of the game, and it cost us,"Ruff admitted after the game. "If you're going to be stupid, you're going to lose games."

"We have no one to blame but ourselves," Ruff continued. "Some of our guys should be down about the way we're playing, but for 90 percent of that game, I liked the way we played."

Zhitnik had his day in front of the NHL heads of state along with an angry Lindy Ruff. "All I can say is that it wasn't intentional," said a befuddled Zhitnik about the senseless high stick that cost the Sabres the game. "I was trying to jump around him and my stick was up, and I guess his head was right there."

What Zhitnik should have said is that his own head was in his way, and has been for the past couple of years.

Ruff is ready to turn the Sabres practices into boot camp and if any players get out of line with undisciplined penalties, that they'll have to do KP duty.

"On our part, it was a total lack of composure," Ruff pronounced. "In Alexei's defense, we've seen a lot of undisciplined play. Vaclav Varada and Jason Woolley took penalties in the first few minutes, and Varada's was equally undisciplined. Nobody's going to get any rope. Somebody has to start sitting. "We're 26th out of 30 teams in the league in penalty minutes. I think the only thing you can do is take away ice time. You sit them for a period, until they get the message."

The Sabres, who were exuberant after winning their fist two games, now realize that they've had their heads handed back to them.

"Any time you do things wrong, you learn from it," contended Jay McKee. "There were two games on this trip where it was a tie game with (about) two minutes to play. We didn't come through. Our goal was to be .500 (on the road). We have some catching up to do. We're three games behind."

"It's tough for everybody, whether you score or not," said the only Sabre who really put out Tuesday, Stu Barnes. "The bottom line is, we didn't win the game. Hopefully we learned a lesson."

After the Sabres won their fist two games, the management hinted that they really didn't need Michael Peca's presence. Now that the Sabres came home empty handed from their road trip and could have used the Sabres captain in exile, especially during short handed situations, the ball is back in the Peca's court.

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