By Bill Hoppe
For the current state of the Sabres, consider this. In a five-day span, they lost to the feeble New York Islanders, the Eastern Conference’s worst team, and the hapless Columbus Blue Jackets, the Western Conference cellar-dweller.
In their last six games, the Sabres have only beaten the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals, two reeling clubs whose coaches got axed Monday.
In the latest setback, a boring 2-1 loss Tuesday to the Isles before a capacity crowd of 18,690 fans, the Sabres generated little against one of the NHL’s most porous defenses.
Still, they had a chance against the Isles, who had only one previous road victory in eight tries.
Jochen Hecht tied it 1:54 into third period. Then, just after Brian Rolston made it 2-1 in front at 9:23, the Sabres frittered away a 1:34 two-man advantage, botching and narrowly missing several prime opportunities.
“Those are ones you got to put away,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said.
Incredibly, the Sabres fell to 5-7-1 at the First Niagara Center this season. They’ve lost six of nine (3-5-1) and haven’t won two straight games since they had four consecutive wins Nov. 4-11.
“I think we just got to be on the same page altogether,” Sabres center Derek Roy said. “Everyone’s just got to work together and work together to get the puck out, work together to get the puck in. Every goal is doing the hard work and working together.”
Despite a win over New Jersey in their last outing, the Isles were ripe to be exploited, having won only six times all season. They came in averaging a league-worst 1.95 goals per contest and allowing 3.17, 27thoverall.
“This is the NHL. Everyone comes to play, everyone comes to win,” Sabres defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani said. “We knew that. I mean, it’s a matter of bounces sometimes.”
The Sabres started slowly, falling behind when Matt Moulson tallied on the power play just 6:47 into the game.
Little was generated through the first 40 minutes, as the sloppy Sabres peppered only 16 shots on Isles goalie Al Montoya. They put 15 on net in the third period, however.
“They played hard. They got the puck in deep and worked us a couple times,” Roy said. “Until the third period I don’t think we did that to them. We got to be a little bit better, especially against a last-place team like that. We got to come out harder and get pucks deep and work them down low.”
It didn’t help defenseman Jordan Leopold (upper body) left the game following the first period, becoming the eighth regular the Sabres have lost. Ruff didn’t know if Leopold would miss time.
“He’s hurting,” Ruff said.
With only five defensemen, four played 20 or minutes, including Christian Ehrhoff, who skated an incredible 32:48, a career high. The German played more than 13 minutes in the third period.
Shortly before Rolston scored, the Sabres dodged a few bullets, getting some big saves from goalie Jhonas Enroth and some luck from the post.
“We were hoping to get a little bit of momentum after that,” said Enroth, who made 28 stops. “We were hoping to dig in defensively and (Rolston) was standing pretty much alone, I think.”
Ehrhoff quarterback the two-man advantage, failing to get two big point blasts through. Then, the officials whistled Jason Pominville for a phantom hand pass, moving the faceoff outside the zone.
Later on, Montoya stoned Thomas Vanek point-blank, and then Roy, who put his second chance over the net.
“I thought we didn’t quite show enough composure,” Ruff said. “I thought we tried to move it around. I thought Christian felt he maybe had a lane to get it to the net right off the bat. He blew two shots.”
Roy added: “You got to capitalize on those opportunities. Those are game-changers.”
Shortly after the power play, Gragnani pinched in and fed Ville Leino, who was alone beside the net with Montoya out of position. The pass went through his legs, however.
Leino has one goal in the last 24 games and two all season.
“You got to put them away,” Ruff said. “We missed a couple beauties. Even the five-on-three we missed two or three. Then right afterwards, the Leino opportunity. You miss those, those come back to bite you.”
He added later: “I think our biggest default right now is not finishing off opportunities.”
Don’t forget about winning games.