BUFFALO – Everything’s becoming ugly very quickly for the reeling Sabres, whose season is already on the brink of collapsing after losing three straight contests and seven of the last eight.
Three wins and seven points through 10 games have them mired in last place in the Northeast Division and 14th in the Eastern Conference following Tuesday’s 4-3 defeat in Ottawa, a game they nearly roared back and tied.
Incredibly, depending how some other dregs fair, a regulation loss tonight at home to the Montreal Canadiens could kick the Sabres to dead last in the league.
Don’t forget, the Sabres won their first two contests. Two weeks later, they’re a mess, unable to defend or even win draws consistently.
After missing the playoffs last season and starting this campaign so wretchedly, should the Sabres be concerned changes are coming among the player ranks or even the coaches?
“I think you’re always concerned,” coach Lindy Ruff said Wednesday inside the First Niagara Center after the Sabres practiced nearly an hour on a day they were originally scheduled to have off. “My job is to keep the morale up. I think the hope for the team has been real good. The guys have been positive, they’ve been upbeat.
“I thought they dug in, tried to come back in the game, tried to fight through the adversity. We were a toecap away from tying it (Tuesday) on (Jordan) Leopold’s shot with the goaltender pulled. So you got to give them credit for really digging in.
“But I understand the other side of it, too. We need to win games. We need to win them now. We’ve lost two or three that I feel faceoffs have cost us.”
More on the faceoffs later.
What about Ruff, who’s been around since 1997? Could this awful 10-game stretch start the clock ticking on the NHL’s longest-tenured coach?
Sabres goalie Ryan Miller said players won’t sit and worry about the pressure mounting on their coach.
“We’re trying to get ourselves in a good place to play hockey,” Miller said. “This is the team we have. This is the coaches we have. We’re not going to look at them like, ‘Uh, it might happen.’ … It’s not lost on us that we need to play better hockey. But I don’t think now’s the time to start panicking. It’s time to keep building.”
Ruff said he spoke with owner Terry Pegula Wednesday morning.
“We talked hockey,” Ruff said.
Despite the Sabres’ terrible start, it still seems unlikely Ruff would be fired, at least in the near future.
He’s extremely close to general manager Darcy Regier, who’s been beside him from the start. In a published report Wednesday, Regier said Ruff won’t be replaced.
Pegula’s an unabashed Ruff fan.
“Pardon my French: Lindy ain’t going nowhere,” Pegula said on the day he purchased the Sabres two years ago this month.
But even Ruff’s most ardent supporters probably can’t defend some downright terrible numbers. The Sabres are 30th in goals allowed (3.70) and faceoff percentage (41.3, a full four percentage points behind Edmonton).
Ruff spent much of Wednesday’s session drilling the Sabres on playing faceoff losses properly. He estimated the Sabres chased the puck 70 percent of the time after losing 37 of 52 draws Tuesday. The Senators scored once off a clean win.
“That’s hard hockey, and our faceoffs have to get better,” said Ruff, who had players doing pushups if they defended a draw poorly. “That’s going to start with every guy in the dot at least trying to saw it off where we can get help to come in.”
Still, the Sabres have done some things well. Their 30 goals (10th overall) should’ve been parlayed into more wins. Thomas Vanek already has eight goals and 19 points, the NHL’s hottest offensive start. Linemate Jason Pominville has six scores and 14 points.
In goal, Miller looks locked in. Forget that his statistics – a 3.11 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage – are weak.
Other than a forgettable effort in last Tuesday’s 4-3 overtime loss to Toronto, he’s played well enough to win every game. Backup Jhonas Enroth, meanwhile, has a 4.75 goals-against average in three appearances.
“I think it’s fine,” Miller said about his own play. “I don’t think it’s been horrible. I think I had one pretty sour outing against the Leafs. I think I’ve been pretty sharp.”
The Sabres practiced Wednesday because they must improve quickly, especially with Montreal, a team that throttled them 6-1 on Saturday, coming in tonight.
Ruff told the team’s leadership group skating would be a good idea. The new collective bargaining agreement mandates a certain number of days off each month, but the Sabres plan to make Wednesday’s scheduled one up later.
“It is a situation where we know we’re digging out of a hole,” Ruff said. “We got a lot of guys out. We got a lot of guys in new positions. There was lots of stuff to go over.”
Pominville added: “I think it was something we decided as a group that we had some things to do, to work on. I think everybody hopped on board.”