Sabres’ problems have no easy solution

Another Buffalo Sabres game, another loss. This team is getting more and more frustrating to watch.

We’ve lost five of six and haven’t won consecutive games since early November. Scoring is down, everyone’s hurt, goaltending is suspect, special teams are brutal and fans are calling for Terry Pegula to start handing out pink slips. What’s more concerning is there doesn’t seem to be a quick fix for the Sabres’ problems.

We could score more, and sure, picking up someone in front would be nice, but there’s no single thing the players can do differently tomorrow that will turn the season around.

There’s nothing we can do about injuries. The only way we’re going to get key players back is to wait, but time isn’t something we have a whole lot of. It’s nearly Christmas and we’re currently on the outside of the playoff picture, looking in.

Tyler Myers and Brad Boyes weren’t setting the league on fire before getting hurt, but it looks as if even having them at eighty percent was better than not having them at all. The Rochester replacements really haven’t played that bad, but life is different as a call-up.

You don’t show up in the NHL expecting to rack up the points and put the team on your back. A good day for a newbie is not messing up. Surviving. If you play well enough to not get sent right back down, your day was relatively successful.

Surviving isn’t enough for the regulars. They need to produce. While Zack Kassian and Myers have produced the same amount of points this season (six), we’re saying “Hey, pretty good job from Kassian” and “Man, we really need more from Myers,” even though they gave us the same thing. It feels like our rookies are playing well, but comparing it with the production it takes from regulars to win in the NHL is one reason why the Sabres are struggling — and there’s no easy way to fix it.

Goaltending also needs improvement. Ryan Miller is not playing at the level of a good NHL goalie, let alone anyway near the level he’s getting paid for. Jhonas Enroth, though less criticized, is in a bit of a slump as well. Both goalies have appeared in the same amount of games, with nearly equal results: Miller is 8-7-2 and Enroth is 8-7-1 (that’s best explained in baseball terms … even though they may have been credited with an appearance, they don’t necessarily get a decision).

Twenty-four goalies in the league post a better goals against average than Enroth’s 2.54, and his is more than a half-goal better than Miller’s (3.12, 37th). Enroth also has a better save percentage (.918 to .904), but Miller is the “proven” guy with a contract almost ten times as large.

"Bad goalie! Bad!"

How do you tell a goalie to play better? I kind of wish Lindy would hit Miller on the nose and yell “Bad goalie!” from the bench every time he got scored on, but I don’t think that would do it. He might be going down a little bit early, but Miller doesn’t seem to have have any major technical flaws that shooters are exploiting. He insists he’s free of concussion symptoms, so all that’s left is the mental aspect. Dominik Hasek took it personally when he got beat, but for a more introverted goalie like Miller, maybe he needs some time to get his head right. (Hey Millsy, do that thing you used to do when you sit in the stands with your stick seven hours before a game and look into space. That was cool.)

But goaltending wasn’t the problem against Toronto or Ottawa. Miller was fun to watch against Toronto, especially in the first period where he made several nice save. Miller turned away 35 shots and held the Senators to one goal in the first 48 minutes against Ottawa. The team didn’t play well in its own end either night and was held to two goals or less for the sixth and seventh times in the last 30 days.

One way to help the goalies out is to pick up bodies in front of the net. The Sabres are getting beat for a lot of second chance goals lately and while defensive zone coverage won’t put goals on the board, it will help keep them off it.

I wrote last week how Robyn Regehr, Andrej Sekera and the rest of the Sabres need to lose their puck focus and find a man. Four games and 19 goals later, the team is still having the same problem.

We’re picking on Mike Weber from Tuesday’s game in Ottawa, but after going minus-8 in his first seven games played, he has it coming.

Weber got beat by Chris Neal, of all people, for a home run pass through the neutral zone that led to the Senators’ first goal.

Here are shots about two seconds apart. In the first one, Neal has just slipped past Weber. Zack Smith, a few strides past the red line, is underlined.

There’s no excuse for getting beat like that, but it happens. You put your head down and try as hard as you can to catch the guy, and if you can’t do that, either make sure you clear the rebound and tie up the trailer.

Weber doesn’t do any of those. He coasts back to the net and lets Smith fly right past past him, as shown in the second frame. Smith has gone untouched from the middle of the neutral zone to the hashmarks in the same amount of time that Weber, who should be madder than anyone, went from inside the blue line to the top of the circles. Miller stops the initial shot (because it’s Chris Neal), but when Jordan Leopold can’t clear the rebound, Smith gets a backhand on the loose puck and knocks it past Miller.

Ottawa’s second goal was scored on a rebound and the third goal came on the power play when Jason Pominville didn’t pick up the man coming in from the point. Scoring goals is still a problem, but tightening up defensive zone coverage goes a long way for a hockey team.

After that, there’s not much left a coach can do. Lindy could get in guys’ faces and tell them they need to stop playing like a bunch of sallies, but that’s not his style. The Sabres have plenty of hockey left before the New Year with four games the week after Christmas, but they better figure things out soon, before fans and Eastern Conference teams leave them behind.

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