By Bill Hoppe
Just think, well before Christmas, the Sabres’ home woes could already be an afterthought. Tonight’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers kicks off a five-game homestand. The schedule can sometimes be as helpful as it’s unforgiving.
The Sabres have a splendid chance over the next 10 days to begin forging an identity at the First Niagara Center, where they’re a brutal 5-8-1. So far, they’ve mostly been a mess before their frustrated fans, showcasing some wildly erratic play and getting booed.
They blew leads in their first three losses. Recently, they’ve been imploding early in games, often falling behind two or three goals. It happened again Friday, when they trailed Detroit 3-0 just 15 minutes into their 4-1 loss. Even when they finish strongly, the slow starts doom them.
“I don’t think it has been the same pattern,” coach Lindy Ruff said about the home struggles Tuesday after the Sabres practiced at the Northtown Center in Amherst. “I think we’ve had a little bit of where we got leads, came out well, played well. I think we’ve had a little bit of where our goaltending hasn’t been good at home. It’s been great on the road. …
“I wouldn’t pinpoint it on just one thing. … There’s such a fine line. I think when we play a complete game from the goaltender out, we’ll win at home.”
The Sabres have played complete road games, however, earning their shiny 8-3 record.
To illustrate how differently they’ve perform away, consider: Sabres goalie Ryan Miller is 4-2 with a 1.77 goals-against average and .944 save percentage on the road. At home, though, his numbers – 2-4, 3.90, .879 – are wretched. Overall, the Sabres are allowing only 2.3 goals a game on the road and 2.9 at home. The figures include two season-opening European games.
The Sabres also endured a dreadful home start last season, dropping their first seven contests (0-5-2) before finally winning Nov. 13. But they finished a terrific 21-11-2.
Right now, the Sabres are clearly tight, even downright uncomfortable, at the FNC.
“We’re just a little uptight right now,” Miller said. “It’s hard to say what leads into that whole mindset where if it’s uptight, or we get uptight because we get down, or if we get down because we start trying to do too much. You start thinking too much.
“I guess we needed to clear the air a little bit, clear our heads and just go out and play hockey. The fans just want to see an honest effort and they want to see us play hard.”
It probably doesn’t help when the fans start getting on them, either.
“I don’t know if sometimes they realize, but they have an impact on the way we feel and the way we work and the way we compete,” Sabres captain Jason Pominville said. “We feed off the energy they bring us. Sometimes it’s tough to hear. But when they’re going well and they’re cheering, we got some of the best fans.
“At the same time, we know we can be better at home, and we want to be better for them and we expect them to be as loud as possible to support us in the way we know they’re capable of.”
During the Sabres’ session Tuesday, Ruff forced his players to battle, something they’ve done well on the road. At one point he even yelled, “More battle! We’ll stay here until 2 if we have to!”
The clock hadn’t even hit 1 p.m. yet.
A ferocious, simpler style could buoy the Sabres. They’ve tried to put on a show at home for years, getting too fancy.
“Sometimes there’s a little bit longer pass. Sometimes there’s more of a delay looking for a nice pass,” Miller said. “I think maybe early in the game we got to just establish a little bit of a boring kind of chess match, and then later in the game we can make those open plays as we’ve earned the ice.
“It’s something we’ve talked about and something that we hope we can turn the tide. We all know we have to be better at home. It’s critical to our season.”
Defenseman Robyn Regehr said the Sabres should copy Detroit’s early style.
“I think it was the first shift, the guy won the draw, had the puck and just threw it in and got their forecheck going. Away they went,” Regehr said. “That kind of stuff, it gets everyone going into the game, it gets you skating, gets you attacking and puts the other team on their heels a little bit.”
Pominville added: “It starts with being north-south and getting pucks deep and getting their defenseman to turn around and go get it. It’s kind of cliché, but it’s simple hockey. You don’t want to do too much at home, and sometimes we get away from it, try to do a little bit too much.”
Sabres winger Cody McCormick (possible concussion, nine games) has been cleared to play and could dress tonight. Meanwhile, center Jochen Hecht (undisclosed) practiced Tuesday.
Defenseman Jordan Leopold (upper body, two games) will sit again tonight, so the Sabres have recalled Joe Finley again from Rochester. The rookie played twice last week.
Center Paul Gaustad (upper body) will miss his first game.