A look at 13 moments that led to Year 13 of Sabres' playoff drought


Staff member

Buffalo Sabres right winger Jack Quinn chases a loose puck against the Flyers on April 5. Quinn's offseason Achilles injury was a bad omen for the Sabres' season. Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News

It’s all so hard to believe. How did this happen again?

Cut to the chase and we know the key reasons the Sabres aren’t going to the playoffs for the 13th straight year.

We can all cite chapter and verse on the bad power play that’s down 27 goals from last season, the abominable first periods, the lack of any serious winning streaks, the top scorers’ regressions, the inability to get games to overtime and get loser points, the Jack Quinn injury and the front office’s miscalculation to make up for it, and the terrible first 29 games at home (12-16-1).

How much of it is on the players and how much of it is on GM Kevyn Adams and/or coach Don Granato is a prickly debate. In the end, the Sabres were there. And that’s what’s so maddening about this drought. When the season closes this week, it will be a struggle for the East’s second wild card to even get to 90 points, a figure the Sabres easily should have passed.

They entered the final weekend of a lost season with more wins than the Penguins, Islanders, Capitals and Flyers and didn’t have a single losing streak of more than two games after Dec. 5. And they’re not going to be in. Hard to fathom.

It’s not close to the pain of 13 Seconds, but let’s look back at 13 Moments that contributed to another silent Sabres spring:

1. The Quinn injury. Sometimes you really can send your next season down a bad wormhole in June. The Achilles injury Quinn suffered during an offseason workout that the Sabres revealed at the draft in Nashville had reverberations throughout the lineup and power play. Adams thought the Sabres could fill for Quinn internally because he would return around Christmas, but no one stepped up in training camp to take the role and the Sabres never brought in a veteran. They’re kidding themselves if they think Patrick Kane was signing.

Then Quinn wrecked his ankle in the January win at San Jose and needed surgery. He will play only 27 games this season and you see the glimpses of what he was going to be for the season. He’s on a 26-goal pace even with several games just to get up to speed. No stretch to say Quinn could have been a 30- to 35-goal scorer this year if healthy.

2. The season opener. Spirits were high for the Oct. 12 visit by the New York Rangers and “RJ Way” was dedicated outside KeyBank Center in honor of Rick Jeanneret. The game was a total dud, a 5-1 loss that showed the Sabres to be outclassed by a team headed to a Presidents’ Trophy. It was one game but quickly made you wonder if training camp time had been properly utilized, a question that gnawed at the club for three months.

3. Levi’s first four games. It wasn’t unreasonable to start the year with Devon Levi as the No. 1 goaltender, given how he played at the end of last season and the fact he was clearly the best goaltender in camp. But he played the first four games, which was too much too soon, and went 1-3 before coming up injured in a home loss to Calgary. At least it hasn’t been a lost year: Levi has 10 NHL wins and a dominant season going in Rochester.

4. The rest of the goaltending. Did you forget it took until Game 7, a 6-4 win in Ottawa, to give Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen his first start? The Sabres gave Eric Comrie two starts before UPL got his first and Comrie is 1-7 with a 3.91 goals-against average and .864 save percentage, figures that easily made him one of the worst goalies in the league. Think some of those points would have come in handy?

Not knowing what to do after Levi got hurt and putting Comrie on the ice was a major mistake by Adams and Granato that gets severely overlooked in the context of the entire season.

5. The Thompson injury. Here’s a key question coming at locker cleanout day: When did Tage Thompson start feeling like Tage Thompson again? After 47 goals and 94 points last season, the No. 1 center’s season was wrecked when he blocked a shot to the wrist in a Nov. 14 loss to Boston. Thompson missed nine games and the team went 3-5-1, and had just three goals in his first 11 games when he returned.

Thompson has scored 11 goals since March 9 and it seems like it took that long for him to feel comfortable shooting and stickhandling with the puck again. He entered the weekend with 29 goals.

6. First periods. Just pick any one. The Sabres entered Saturday having given up 95 goals in the opening 20 minutes, the most in the league. They’ve given up 3-plus goals nine times and 2-plus a ridiculous 29 times – going 7-21-1 in those games. Players need to show up, but that’s a stat that gets coaches fired.

Three times in the first four games, they gave up two goals and lost all three games. They were down, 4-0, after 20 minutes in a Nov. 25 loss at New Jersey that saw them get outshot, 37-12. How about that 5-0 no-show March 27 against Ottawa? Buffalo goalies entered Saturday with an .881 save percentage in first periods, too. Gotta get early saves.

7. Quack, quack. You can’t get swept by the Anaheim Ducks. Period. They’re 30th in the league and may not get to 60 points and the Sabres lost to them twice. The 4-2 January loss at Honda Center was an abomination, a game the Sabres slept through for 40 minutes. Several players privately crabbed about having no legs after flying West the day before the game following a morning practice here. Not going out two days early for a weeklong trip sure reeked of a cut-corners money move.

The Feb. 19 home loss to the Ducks was played like you would think: Buffalo outshot the visitors, 37-14, and outattempted them, 71-29. But they lost, 4-3, as John Gibson outplayed Luukkonen. Oddly enough, the Ducks swept New Jersey, too. The Devils have to feel the same way as Buffalo.

8. Getting goalied. The Sabres are 3-4-1 in games where they had 40-plus shots on goal. Among the culprits: They outshot St. Louis, 46-20, in a November game near the Gateway Arch but Jordan Binnington stood on his head in a 6-4 defeat. Montreal’s Cayden Primeau made 46 saves against them in a December shootout loss at home. And Dallas’ Jake Oettinger made 47 saves against them in a 2-1 loss here in February. Scorers have to score.

9. Columbus. The inexplicable Dec. 19 home game put the entire Adams-Granato era in question. Against a terrible opponent, the Sabres were in a 7-1 hole in the second period before losing, 9-4. Fans started chanting “Fi-re Don-ny” and outraged players spent a few weeks not doing postgame salutes because of it until Adams stepped in and stopped the snubs. Had the team not recovered to trample Toronto, 9-3, two nights later, you seriously wonder if Granato would have survived Christmas.

10. Detroit. The Sabres rolled the Red Wings, 7-3, here on March 12 and had two chances after that to do damage against them in Little Caesars Arena and take a huge step up in the playoff race. They lost both, 4-1 and 3-1. Kane scored the winning goal in both. They had to listen to 19,000 fans scream out the Journey lyrics, “Just a city boy. Born and raised in South DETROIT” after both. The Red Wings are not good. They entered the weekend 5-12-3 in their last 20 games – but two of the wins were over Buffalo.

11. Auston Matthews’ 60th. The 3-0 loss to the Leafs was not a bad performance. The Sabres outshot the visitors, 34-22, but the players were left ashen-faced by the abandonment of their fans, as basically the entire building was taken up by Toronto supporters.

And the singularly worst moment of the entire season – and maybe in many years – came when Matthews hopped on a loose puck in the third period and potted his 60th goal of the season. The building erupted in cheers and a prolonged ovation. By visiting fans for a visiting player. The Sabres’ business and hockey departments have to do better to keep their fans in the game and not cash out to Leafs rooters. There have always been Leafs fans in Buffalo. It never used to be like this.

12. The Skinner injury. We still don’t know what happened to Jeff Skinner when he plummeted into the boards by Nathan MacKinnon during the Dec. 13 loss in Denver but he clearly hasn’t been right since. In the first 30 games of the season until the injury, Skinner had 12 goals and 22 points. Over the last 50 games, he has 12 goals and 24 points. In his last 11 games entering Saturday, Skinner has one measly assist. A $9 million player coming off a 35-goal, 82-point season can’t be that invisible.

13. Back-to-backs. You could count on the Sabres to give away points in back-to-back sets, as they went 7-4-1 in the first games – and 3-9-0 in the second games. Not a single time in 12 sets did the Sabres get three or four points in a back-to-back.

Game 2 of the sets was a particular disaster as Buffalo won its first two and then went 1-9 from mid-November on. And in those 10 games, the Sabres were outscored, 38-15, and averaged just 1.5 goals per game. They were shut out or held to one goal five times.
Out of shape or out of mind? Whatever it is, a Northeast team is going to get a lot of schedule pairs. They have to be better.