It didn't take long after this series ended for the Buffalo fans and media to jump all over the Sabres skill players for not showing up in the playoffs. The fingers were pointed mostly at Tim Connolly, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville with Drew Stafford earning honorable mention despite playing in only three games. While everyone is piling on these players, allow me to defend them a bit.
While all these players could have possibly been better they were not the reason the Sabres lost in six games to the Boston Bruins. The Sabres scored 2.5 goals per game in this series which is more than the Bruins allowed during the regular season. Only the Vancouver Canucks, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals scored more even strength goals than the Sabres did in six playoff games.
The Sabres offense wasn't the reason they lost the series, special teams were the reason the Sabres lost. The Sabres scored zero power play goals while the Bruins scored six times with the man advantage.
All three of the players mentioned are part of the power play and deserve some blame for the teams power play failure but where were the coaches to change the strategy? When things weren't working in the first couple of games of the series Lindy Ruff publicly gave up on the team having power play success. Instead of trying to adjust and come up with a new plan, they simply conceded having success with the man advantage. How can we blame the players when the coaches didn't have an answer?
While the Sabres gave up on the idea of power play success the Bruins took advantage of their power play chances. Boston scored a total of six power play goals in six games against a Sabres penalty kill that finished second in the league during the regular season. The Bruins power play struggled all season but they made adjustments and it helped them win this series and advance to the second round.
Despite the Bruins obvious advantage in special teams, people will still argue that if Derek Roy had done more or Tim Connolly had done more, the Sabres could have still overcome their special teams deficiencies. There are plenty of reasons why these players had little success in the series.
Think back to game one and how good Derek Roy played with Thomas Vanek alongside him. Roy set up Vanek with the first goal of the series and I would argue they were the best two forwards on the ice for either team in that game. It looked like that success would continue when Roy sent Vanek away on a partial breakaway with the score already 2-0 in the first period of game two. That is when Johnny Boychuk slashed the knee of Vanek and he crashed heavily into the boards. Vanek was out of the lineup and Roy never seemed to recover wit his new linemates.
Lets talk a little about Roy's new linemates. Lindy Ruff decided to go top heavy on the Sabres top line with Jason Pominville and Tyler Ennis playing on either side of him. This was either a terrible strategy because none of those players can compete physically with big Zdeno Chara or Boychuk or a very smart strategy.
I'll give Lindy Ruff the benefit of the doubt and say it was a smart strategy to force the Bruins to play Chara and Boychuk against this line which would free up space for the other three lines. If that was the strategy, it worked, because the Sabres scored 14 even strength goals in the series. While it opened up space for the other three lines it put those guys in a position to take some heat for not producing offensively.
As for Tim Connolly there is no question he struggled throughout the series but that won't stop me from defending him a little bit. He played with Pominville and Ennis the first two games and they were on the ice for four of the Bruins five goals in game two.
After the disappointing performance in game two, Pominville and Ennis played along with Roy and Connolly was stuck in offensive purgatory with Grier and Gaustad on his line. Mike Grier was good all series but Connolly is known as a play-maker and not a finisher, playing him with two grinders seems like a waste of his talent.
I thought these players were put in a position to fail and they did. Three small, skilled forwards are not the combination that compete with big, physical defensemen and playing a play-maker with grinders is not a recipe for success either. In the end the criticism will continue and the only way to erase that criticism is to contribute in the future. Only time will tell if any of these players can answer the bell.
Still there is plenty of blame to be thrown around but lets put the pressure on the coaches for their unwillingness to adjust when the special teams failed miserably in the six game series loss.