Frustration sets in as Sabres’ season hits breaking point in loss to Lightning


Staff member

The Buffalo Sabres’ season reached its breaking point Saturday afternoon against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

You could argue it happened long before this when the Sabres stumbled to an uneven start in the first few months of the season. But they entered this six-game homestand with a slim chance to wrestle their way back up the standings with a winning streak. But after a 3-1 loss to the Lightning, the Sabres finished this homestand with a 3-3 record. The wins came against the Senators, Sharks and Blackhawks, three of the four worst teams in the NHL. They lost to the Kraken, Canucks and Lightning. In two of those losses, they played well enough to win but couldn’t generate enough offense.

That, of course, is the trouble with desperately needing points in mid-January. The Sabres have left themselves no cushion for the inevitable tough-luck losses that happen throughout an NHL season. Saturday was another one of those for Buffalo, and Don Granato’s frustration was evident after the game.

Trailing 2-1 late in the third period, the Sabres were on the power play. Tage Thompson got tied up in the corner, and the refs didn’t make a call. A few seconds later, Lightning goalie Jonas Johansson made a save, and Zach Benson poked at his pads in case of a rebound. Benson was called for slashing, and the Sabres’ power play was over.

“You know 15 seconds into that power play, Thompson got completely wrapped up and held in the corner,” Granato said. “And I get it, no call. You don’t put a team down five-on-three, I understand that. But they got a freebie right there. I haven’t seen that called all year long. I’m not an official. I’m just telling you what I saw. Tommer got wrapped up, tied up in the corner and spends 20 seconds in the corner and it wasn’t called. Then the poke that Benson made was toward the puck. I think it was called a slash, and he was poking for the puck. Again, I haven’t seen that called all year. So yeah, obviously that’s frustrating.”

Granato has praised Benson as one of the Sabres’ most consistently competitive players. He also seems to be the target of officials for ticky-tack penalty calls. This slashing call was almost as weak as the cross-checking call he got a couple of months ago against the Rangers’ Jacob Trouba.

“That’s frustrating because you feel for Zach,” Granato said of the slashing penalty. “He’s got to play aggressive and tenacious. And when we look at the standard, that is not even that aggressive. That particular play right there, which is again frustrating. That’s a frustrating, frustrating one. But you feel for Zach and you certainly wonder as a younger guy in the league — I won’t say any more, but that’s what you wonder.”

This was a legitimate gripe from Granato. But the Sabres also could have done more to generate offense early in the game. In their three losses on this homestand, the Sabres had three goals. For a team that was one of the best offensive teams in hockey a year ago, that’s a jarring stat. They’ve been missing Jeff Skinner, but the lineup has otherwise been somewhat healthy. The power play continues to bog the Sabres down. Since the start of this homestand, the Sabres are 3-for-17 on the power play. That’s a 17.7 percent conversion rate, which is actually better than their season-long conversion rate of 14.3 percent, good for 27th in the NHL. They’re running out of time to find answers.

Just as concerning, though, is the frequency with which the Sabres fail to get to the front of the net. They did it against the Blackhawks and got multiple goals because of it. But their season-long shot map is one of a team that wants to stay on the perimeter. After the game, Thompson said he felt the Sabres played too much on the perimeter.

“It’s part of certain guys’ fiber actually,” Granato said when asked whether getting to the net is a mentality that needs to be instilled in the team. “Obviously, there are guys, everybody knows when they watch, certain guys go to the net with more consistency than others. It’s part of their character, it’s part of their player bio, and then on a nightly basis, there’s massive fluctuation throughout the league. But when teams are going to the net, and the timing … the perimeter’s fine, the perimeter’s good. Goals are scored coming from the perimeter, it’s the timing of getting to the net, getting off the perimeter at the right time. It’s not as easy as going and standing in front of the net and never moving. The puck has to get to the net. It’s never going to get to the net if you don’t have support around the perimeter to get it in there, and then the timing. For us, for teams around the league, you’re watching it, it’s an indicator if they’re on their game. The more you do it, the more competitive you are and on your game and rhythm.”

The Sabres’ shot map for the season is one of a team that lacks that character trait Granato mentioned.


Last season, the Sabres’ shot chart showed a team that was creating chances in the slot. Teams have focused on that and taken those plays away. But the Sabres haven’t answered.


For reference, here’s what the Bruins’ shot chart looks like this season.


The Sabres may have a lot of offensive skill, but too many players on the team lack the specific skill of getting positioning and hunting for pucks near the net. It’s a skill the best teams have. And that may be the most glaring aspect of the Sabres’ regression. Whether that means the Sabres need more players with that trait or need to coach it into their current players is a question for which general manager Kevyn Adams needs an answer. Because though this season has slipped away, this roster has a lot of talent and even more of it in the prospect pool. But the next steps are going to be crucial to keeping this rebuild heading in the right direction.

As it stood when the Sabres left the arena, they were seven points out of a wild-card spot with five teams ahead of them in the chase and more games played than every team they’re chasing. Without an unexpected winning streak, the Sabres aren’t going to achieve their preseason goal of making the playoffs. And they haven’t had a winning streak longer than two games this season, so a 13th straight season without the playoffs looks inevitable.