BUFFALO – Phil Housley played eight seasons here, so the rookie coach understands Sabres fans, win or lose, appreciate a strong effort.
To Housley, the surly crowd “had a right” to boo the winless Sabres throughout Monday afternoon’s wretched 6-2 defeat to the New Jersey Devils.
“If I was sitting in their shoes, I would’ve had maybe the same reaction,” said Housley, who called his team’s effort “unacceptable.”
After falling behind 2-0 early, the Sabres imploded during a disastrous second period, allowing four goals, including another short-handed score, their fourth in three games.
The Sabres have played some terrible periods during their six-year playoff drought. Monday’s second ranks among the worst, on par with some from 2013-14 and 2014-15, when they were far and away the NHL’s worst team.
At the end of the period, the restless fans booed the Sabres off the ice. When the final horn sounded, what remained of the crowd of 17,697 – most bolted for the KeyBank Center exits early – again jeered the team off the ice.
Center Ryan O’Reilly said Sabres fans “definitely deserve better.”
“That wasn’t a good show that we put on,” he said.
Yes, it’s very early, but three games into the season, the Sabres (0-2-1) look lost and heading to another postseason DNQ. They’ve followed up Thursday’s strong outing, a 3-2 shootout loss to Montreal, with a 6-3 road loss to the New York Islanders and Monday’s debacle.
So far, two of the three games have been ugly, disjointed messes – throwbacks to last season, which cost coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Tim Murray their jobs.
“We’re making key mistakes at times in the game that are ending up in our net,” Housley said. “And in saying that, our resilience has to be better because we’re faced with adversity and we’re not facing it the right way.
“We’re seeing a bit of a lull in our game and not reacting in the right way. It’s funny because you can draw up a game plan, you can have strategy, but it starts with the work.”
Housley said the Sabres “look really, really good” for spurts. Other times, however, they simply can’t get back for a breakout or win a race to a loose puck.
Of course, some contributions from some of the Sabres’ top scorers would help. A few have contributed little or nothing for three games.
“All three games, I think I’ve been invisible,” O’Reilly said. “I haven’t been creating, I haven’t been playing tough defensively. I’m just out there skating around. It’s not good enough.”
On Monday, the Sabres’ forwards did little, especially early on. Before O’Reilly’s two shots in the waning seconds of the first period, the group had one total. Center Jack Eichel had zero in the game.
Still, the Sabres hung around for a bit. After Evander Kane’s nifty power-play goal got them within one, they had another man advantage and seemingly all the momentum.
Twenty-one seconds later, though, Jesper Bratt converted a short-handed two-on-one, the first of his two scores.
Incredibly, the Sabres allowed four short-handed goals all of last season. They gave up one Thursday and two Saturday (on the same power play) before Monday.
How does it keep happening?
“You think after the first one we’d tighten things up,” O’Reilly said. “It’s so frustrating. I, myself, have to be a big part of it in fixing that. There’s many things tonight we could’ve easily changed and we didn’t. We’re just going to let this one go.”
Kane added: “If you look at the goals, they’re all odd-man rushes, so either we’re misreading plays or jumping up at the wrong time.”
Housley said it’s “disturbing” the short-handed goals keep coming at key points.
“We’ve just got to be smarter, especially if we’re going to try and go in on a puck,” he said.
Right now, about the only Sabre producing is Kane, who scored late in the game and already has four goals and six points.
“We have to have a harder mentality in terms of how we want to play, our compete level needs to be harder,” Kane said.
The Sabres begin a four-game western road trip Thursday with zero wins in their opening three games for the first time since 2014-15.
“We need to be ready for it because if we play like that (again), it’s going to be 10-0,” Kane said.