Niagara Gazette

December 15, 2011

History says Sabres could break out of scoring slump

By Bill Hoppe
Niagara Gazette

BUFFALO — The recent past tells you this is an aberration. The Sabres possess too much talent, too many proven scorers to keep showcasing such an anemic offense.

Through 30 games, they have only 79 goals, just 2.6 a contest heading into tonight’s tilt against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the First Niagara Center.

But that number, 16th in the NHL, doesn’t tell the full story.

The Sabres have a mere 14 goals in their last seven contests. They’ve recently had an alarming lack of finish, missing several prime opportunities each game. At their current pace, they’d have just 216 scores this season, their lowest post-lockout figure.

The secondary scoring is non-existent. Luke Adam, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek have accounted for 40 goals (51 percent).

“I definitely think it’s time for guys like myself and other secondary scorers like myself to start scoring, pick up the load,” slick Sabres winger Tyler Ennis, who has two goals in 13 games, said Thursday. “They’ve done a great job putting the puck in the net up to this point. But we’re going to get wins by everyone contributing.”

The Sabres couldn’t score a year ago, either. At one point around this time, they were on pace for less than 200 goals, a number reminiscent of the Dead Puck Era from early last decade.

But they caught fire near Christmas, and then tore through the league during the second half. When the regular season ended, they had 240 goals (2.9 a game) and the balanced attack everyone expected.

“I’m sure that again we’ll finish the year around that mark,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “I’d like us to improve. But if we end up around that mark, it’s better than average in this league.”

Right now, however, the Sabres are only lamenting their missed chances. They’ve generated plenty. They just can’t push them past the goal line.

It’s common for Ruff to come in following a game and say, “I don’t want to talk about missed opportunities.”

“We don’t want to talk about it, either, because it’s like a broken record in here,” Sabres winger Drew Stafford said. “It’s the same story. There’s not really much to say. It’s the same answers all the time — got to get more pucks on net, got to keep shooting, get bodies in front.

“It is definitely frustrating. You can’t dwell on it.”

No one embodies the Sabres’ scoring struggles like Stafford, who has five goals this season and just two in his last 25 games.

It was one year ago Thursday that Stafford, just back from a shoulder injury, scored the first of his four hat tricks over a dizzying 21-game stretch.

Perhaps his anniversary will ignite him?

“Maybe. Hopefully, you didn’t jinx it,” Stafford told a reporter. “That’s definitely something I remember.”

He finished with a career-high 31 scores, earning a four-year, $16 million contract during the offseason.

This campaign has mostly been a colossal struggle, however.

“He’s got to get inside and be around the front of the net a little bit more,” Ruff said. “The outside chances, the chances off the rush are there. I think the chances around the front of the net need to increase.”

Stafford, of course, is hardly alone. Several established players are underperforming.

Consider these forwards:

• Roy, who usually pushes 30 goals and 70 or 80 points, has seven tallies and 20 points.

• Brad Boyes, a 43-goal scorer four years ago, had two in 21 games before hurting his ankle.

• Nathan Gerbe, who scored 16 times in his final 44 games last season, had three in 26 appearances prior to suffering a concussion.

• Ville Leino, a 19-goal, 53-point performer last season in Philadelphia, had three scores and 10 points before suffering a lower body injury Tuesday.

• Paul Gaustad, a 12-goal man the last three years, has just one.

On defense, Christian Ehrhoff, who averaged 14 goals the past two seasons, has two — one went into an empty net. Tyler Myers, usually good for 10, had two in 19 games before breaking his wrist.

Missing Myers, a supreme puck-rusher, has hurt the Sabres.

“Part of our attack is the absence of Tyler Myers,” Ruff said. “He’s one guy that gets up the ice and makes things happen for us offensively.”

Like a year ago, Roy said the Sabres “just need that one turning point in the season where you get a bunch of goals and everyone feels confident in themselves.”

“A lot of the guys are squeezing the stick a little bit right now when you’re in tight and in the slot,” he said. “You can’t have that.”

Notes: Sabres winger Patrick Kaleta (groin) is “available” tonight. The agitator, out the past five games and nine of the last 10, was held out Tuesday. He returned briefly Dec. 2 before aggravating the injury. “He wanted to play. I just said, ‘I’m going to give you a couple extra days of practice, make sure we get it right this time,’” Ruff said. … Roy and Vanek will both play their 500th NHL games tonight. … The Sabres have signed Kevin Sundher, the 75th pick in 2010, to a three-year, entry-level contract. The center has 21 goals and 53 points in 33 Western Hockey League games this season.