BUFFALO – Forty-five minutes prior to the Sabres’ 3-2 overtime victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets, general manager Kevyn Adams acknowledged he understands the frustration directed toward himself, coach Don Granato and the assistants.
The Sabres have woefully underachieved this season, morphing from one of the NHL’s up-and-coming young teams into perhaps its biggest disappointment.
They’re wildly inconsistent, regularly get outworked, often fall behind early in games and have trouble scoring and preventing goals. Nearly every player is having a down year.
Even after eking out a win Saturday afternoon, the Sabres have endured a rough month, compiling a 5-8-2 record since Nov. 30.
They’re barreling toward their 13th straight postseason DNQ, and fans are irate.
“I understand the position we’re in,” Adams said in the KeyBank Center press box. “Our record is our record. We haven’t performed well enough. So all of us certainly expect us to be playing at a higher level and I believe we will be. I understand that people are going to be frustrated with me, frustrated with the coaching staff, but that’s part of the deal.”
Adams spoke because illness forced Granato to miss the game. Rochester Americans coach Seth Appert subbed behind the bench for Granato, allowing the assistants to stay focused on their regular duties.
Appert will coach the team again in tonight’s road game against the Ottawa Senators. Adams hopes Granato can return early in the week.
Adams and Granato, of course, enjoy a relationship closer than most GMs and coaches. The Sabres showcased consistent growth for more than two seasons under Granato.
A disappointing half season hasn’t shaken Adams’ belief in Granato.
“I have a lot of faith in him,” he said. “I have a lot of trust in him. He’s one of those type of coaches that he looks at every situation to how he can help individual players perform at their best and then how do we get (there) collectively as a team? And I think he’s done a lot of great things during his time as head coach here and now we’re all going to just keep pushing each other to be better.”
Adams said Matt Ellis, Marty Wilford and the other assistants are “frustrated with where we’re at and what’s going on.”
“There is no shortage of work being done,” he said. “There’s a lot of extra meetings going on and that was another part of the reason I didn’t want to disrupt a lot of yesterday’s meetings and video sessions around special teams led by (Ellis) and Marty. …
“That being said, we’re not where we need to be. I understand frustration, but I truly believe in this group. I truly believe in the players, and I also believe that we will come out the other side better for it. It’s adversity, it’s frustration and we need to push through.”
The Sabres barely pushed through against 15th-place Columbus, which shellacked them 9-4 on Dec. 19, an embarrassing loss in which some angry fans chanted for Granato’s dismissal.
On Saturday, winger Jeff Skinner scored the winner 1:20 into overtime, helping the Sabres escape with a win. Despite outshooting the Blue Jackets 42-20 (attempts were 79-36), the Sabres fell behind late in the first period and again in the second.
“We played great in the first two,” said Sabres center Casey Mittelstadt, who tied the game at 2 11:52 into the third period. “We had so many chances and they weren’t going in.”
Winger Jack Quinn knotted the game 40 seconds into the second period, then Mittelstadt’s goal ignited the capacity crowd of 19,070 fans.
During the second intermission, Appert told the Sabres to simply to stick with it and they’d find a way.
“(I told them) I haven’t been in the locker room, I haven’t been on the bench with them feeling them, but how good I felt about the energy, the play, the vibe of the group, and if we stayed the course … don’t get bored playing the right way … eventually we’ll find a way through,” he said.
Goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen had his best performance in weeks, recapturing the stellar form he showcased before illness sidelined him earlier this month.
“There’s just such a presence and a command about him when he’s on his game,” Appert said. “… He was in a great spot a couple weeks ago before he got sick. He’ll get that back. He just works too hard, he’s too good of a teammate, he puts too much time in not to get get that game back in form.”
Adams said Granato, 56, has been sick since Thursday and “took a turn for the worse” Friday night.
When they spoke early Saturday morning, Adams said Granato, who has battled cancer and pneumonia in the past, “did not sound good.”
“Doctors got involved and our trainers and they just wanted to make sure that, especially with some of his history, they’re being smart and it was just best to shut him down here today,” he said.
Appert said Adams called him in Rochester between 8 and 9:30 a.m. as he and his staff were preparing for Saturday’s road game against the Utica Comets. Adams told him to be prepared to come.
At 10 a.m., Adams phoned again and said they needed Appert in Buffalo.
“So I finished up with my staff in Roch, helped get them prepared for our game tonight, then drove here, got here about noon,” Appert said. “I spent a couple hours with (the coaching staff) and with Donny on FaceTime, talking through the game plan, the strategy, the line matchings.”
Appert said the Amerks’ style of play mirrors the Sabres’ “almost identically.”
“I would hate for one of our players in Rochester to get called up and be unfamiliar,” he said. “So our systems, most of our verbiage are very, very aligned. That connectivity allows for smoother transition.”
Adams said winger Zemgus Girgensons, out the last 17 games with a lower-body injury, is “close” and will likely return tonight.
He said it’s too risky to play Girgensons back-to-back games right away.
The Sabres must make a roster move to activate the Latvian.
Adams said Team Canada fears the lower-body injury Sabres center prospect Matt Savoie, 19, suffered Friday against Sweden could sideline him for the rest of the World Junior Championship.
“He’s getting an MRI today,” Adams said. “He was stiff and sore today, as they expected, but they don’t think it’s a major injury.”
Savoie, who played one game with the Sabres earlier this season, is an alternate captain for Canada.
Center Tyson Jost, who cleared waivers Friday and was assigned to Rochester, scored a goal and two points hours later in the Amerks’ 4-2 loss to the Hershey Bears.
Jost, 25, hadn’t played an AHL game since Feb. 9, 2019.
Notes: Sabres center Tage Thompson, who missed Wednesday’s 4-1 loss to the Boston Bruins because his wife, Rachel, went into labor, returned Saturday. … The Sabres made two other lineup changes, inserting defenseman Henri Jokiharju and winger Eric Robinson. Each player had sat out three straight games as a healthy scratch. To make room, they sat out defenseman Erik Johnson and winger Victor Olofsson (both healthy). … The Sabres also scratched goalie Eric Comrie (healthy).