Despite all the changes on and off the ice at the home of the Buffalo Sabres, some disturbing trends seem to be carrying on into the 2011-12 season. Not all is lost though, and there have certainly been some high points to go with the bad. It is still too early in the season to make sweeping generalizations about where the team is headed, and playoffs talk needs to be tempered for now.The feelgood factor created from the excellent European foray has been washed away and a 'back to the drawing board' approach seems necessary now.
Last season the Sabres were off to a miserable start at home, finally recording a win at the HSBC Arena on November 13th, at the eighth time of asking. This year the Sabres have lost the two home games played so far - both were 7:30pm starts, marred by untimely turnovers, careless play and missed opportunities, resulting in identical 4-3 losses.
More after the jump.
When on home ice, the Sabres play has been markedly different than when away. They have not necessarily been in crowd-pleasing mode in the FN Center, but they have been trying to play a fancier game than they should be. Positioning both on and off the puck seems to be a big issue. Repeatedly in the home games we have seen the Sabres trying to thread the needle with passes to the top of the circle when cycling the puck along the boards would have been more prudent. Part of the reason the more patient buildup is not succeeding is because the forwards are getting outworked in the corners and losing the puck. This is then compounded by the defense pinching deeper and deeper to support the forwards, and giving up odd-man rushes going the other way.
One thing Sabres fans would not have failed to notice is that while the Sabres are hit-or-miss on offensive breakaways, they have conceded more often than not when the opposing forwards are through on goal. It is no coincidence both home losses were against teams with excellent positional awareness and good finishing when presented with odd-man rushes, Jeff Skinner and Ryan Malone handing out the death blows on breakaways in the respective games. While the Hurricanes are a more opportunistic lot that the Sabres always struggle against, the Lightning under NHL great Steve Yzerman are proving to be quite the contenders.
Don't forget, Tampa Bay are a playoff team that went all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, and they showed their mettle in the two games against the Sabres. Coach Guy Boucher has developed a trap style that fits his personnel's strengths, and with elite veterans like Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis pulling the strings for young stars like Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, this is once again a dangerous team in the Southeast. The Bolts' role players do their jobs and is a good example of a well-coached, well-led team, one the Sabres would do well to emulate.
Another issue that has been dogging the Sabres is coverage on opposing forwards when trapped in their own zone. While the spirit of converging on the puck is admirable, too often we see the puck leaking out and suddenly an open forward is in the blue ice either tipping in a shot or corralling a rebound off the goalie. This is a mindset that needs to be coached out of the players.
Amidst the doom and gloom pervading Hockey Heaven though is the shining light that is the Sabres' top line. Read Ned Naukam's excellent take on how the Sabres have finally developed what looks like an elite first line, even with a rookie as pivot. After all, Luke Adam is not just any rookie, having been named the AHL Player of the Year last season. Adam has defied expectations by continuing to be steady, working hard and taking his chances. Thomas Vanek has been simply prolific and new captain Jason Pominville has not let that affect his offensive output.
While Tyler Myers seems to be regressing into his sophomore year shell again, Andrej Sekera seems to have really matured and has been very good. Physical when required, and responsible with the puck, Sekera has committed no minor penalties so far. The distribution hasn't been elite but we are definitely witnessing the evolution of a top-four d-man here.
Sabres fans need to keep the faith in their elite goalie Ryan Miller - while we all expect him to make every save, a couple of unfortunate bounces do not turn him into bench material. The grinders led by Nathan Gerbe and Paul Gaustad have also been good, showing grit and tenacity in fighting for the puck and taking advantage of chances when they get them.
The five-game homestand continues with the one-win Blue Jackets on tap on Thursday, followed by a weak Florida Panthers team on Saturday, both games providing sound chances to break the home win hoodoo and not letting this hex stretch into November.