17 May 2007

Slug heartbeat located

Just when Buffalo Sabres fans think they're out....they get pulled right back in again.

After a 3-2 victory in a game that most pundits would have expected the Sabres to fully roll over and die after their pitiful game 3 performance, it was Derek Roy getting the stunning first goal of the night nine seconds after the opening drop. The Sabres never trailed, although things certainly changed after they took a 3-0 lead midway through the second period and it looked like they were ready to romp.

Buffalo suddenly and inexplicably fell into their early-series defensive funk by carelessly turning the puck over in their own zone, leading to two quick Ottawa goals which brought the home crowd to life and seemed to suck the tenuous confidence out of the Sabres.


I'll dispense with the game recap, but this was another game that went far beyond the final score. Buffalo started to show some legs in the first half of the game - they weren't perfect, but they were orders of magnitude better than they'd been over the previous ~six periods. What would concern me from a Buffalo point of view, however, is their quick lapse back into the giveaway game followed by uncharacteristically conservative play (at least in terms of their regular season game). Turnovers are an accepted part of Buffalo's game, and have been for two seasons now, but when every game is now magnified (with everything at stake) and they are playing an opponent who is on top of their game, it becomes far more dangerous.

click for full-sized view:

Lindy Ruff clearly recognized how he was going to deal with any tenuous play early on when he decided to shoot his entire "4 rolling lines" game plan to hell - above is the official shift chart for game 4 and the late-game gaps are telling. Dmitri Kalinin had five shifts in the first period and saw the ice once again - with nine minutes were gone in the third. I think many Sabres' fans will be okay with that decision (4:23 total ice time) but how will that play out in game 5 (or beyond)? Is this a one-time thing or has Ruff's faith [in Kalinin] been completely shattered? If so, he'd be better off not dressing Kalinin and calling up Nathan Paetsch. Skating five (or less...see Spacek below...) defencemen in a playoff game isn't advisable for the team's long-term health - especially if they cannot lose another game.

Some other decisions by Ruff were also questionable:

1) Lack of faith in Jaroslav Spacek. I know a lot of fans are on him for his zero points this postseason, but a major reason for that is his limited ice-time. Spacek only got 8:22 last night with 22 seconds combined on special-teams. He played three shafts total after Ottawa's second goal of the night, essentially giving the Sabres four defencemen for the second half of the game - a likely reason for them being pinned in their own zone much of the third. Long term - I would look for this to be an offseason where Buffalo quietly tries to deal Spacek - Ruff's pattern of usage of him over the past few games is telling - this isn't the first time Spacek has seen pine in critical situations.

2) Too much faith in Brian Campbell. Campbell is an exciting player who, when carrying the puck, can make one think of the better offensive defencemen of the past 20 years. Unfortunately when he doesn't commit to a two-way game he can be a defensive liability. Campbell accounted for four of Buffalo's 10 official turnovers last night yet led all Sabres in ice-time by far with just under 30 minutes. I'm not sure what Ruff is trying to emphasize here - if he wants reliability, Campbell might not be your best bet. Is he that much more defensively responsible than Spacek? No chance. There must be an equalization of ice-time or every third period will be completely slanted towards Ryan Miller for the duration of this postseason.

Speaking of Miller - again he was fantastic tonight. I wish I had seen where it was written that Ray Emery was "outplaying" Miller, because that's a joke. Emery - on the rare occasions he's been tested - has been quite shaky (although he deserves credit for a handful of spectacular saves - it's the easy ones he often struggles with). Chris Drury's goal was a poor effort on Emery's part.

Other shift notes: Dainus Zubrus played four minutes and never returned after the three minute mark of the second. He may be hurt. Ales Kotalik was used sparingly as was Max Afinogenov, although Max put in another solid effort. The most sad/frustrating part from a Sabres' fan point-of-view is the continued dog-like play of Thomas Vanek. He is looking like he did last postseason and at this point the team would lose nothing by having him take a view from the Ted Darling Memorial Press Box Saturday afternoon.

So this game shows again how fragile momentum in hockey is, or a lead within a game or series. Pick any critical moment in the previous three games - e.g. game 2: Toni Lydman's crossbar shot goes in...and this series is tied going back to Buffalo. This is something the Sabres have to hold onto - they're still alive and have a chance. Something simple to remember in all the talk that will come of possibly coming back from an 0-3 deficit...it's not 0-3 anymore. "One game at a time" will continue to be the Sabres' mantra, and although the HSBC arena will be deafening on Saturday, the pressure will still be squarely on the Buffalo Sabres. That will most definitely change in the event of a Buffalo win...

A bit of relevant history: In the 1980 semifinals the Wales Trophy champion Buffalo Sabres faced the New York Islanders. The Sabres were favoured as conference champions and having finished 19 points ahead of the Isles. After a long nine-day layoff the Sabres began their series with New York and quickly found themselves down 0-3 but won the next two. They took a lead in game 6 before eventually collapsing and losing 5-2.

So it's back to Buffalo for a Saturday afternoon matinee. Two days off for the teams to regroup, perhaps heal up, and also consider possible lineup changes.

If nothing else....we may now have a series.


Bleu, Blanc et Rouge said...

Logical explanation to Ruff's behaviour:

Too much depth is clouding his head.

Patrick S. Law said...

I think it is more of a tough love thing with Spacek and just a loss in confidence by Kalinin.

It will be intersting to see who replaces Zubrus in between Max and Vanek. They are talking Kotalik?

I would like to see them give that a shot. I think Kotalik could be interst up the middle. Unfortunately, I think you'll see Drury or Gaustad thrown on the ice for draws and then they will change on the fly.

I have worries about them being trapped on after an icing. Any of those three vs. Spezza or Vermette is a total mismatch.