Observations: Ineffective special teams the difference in Sabres' loss to Bruins


Staff member

Whatever Brad Marchand said to referee Garrett Rank from the door of the penalty box during the first period Wednesday night was enough to earn the Buffalo Sabres a four-minute power play.

Marchand was livid. The Boston Bruins’ bench expressed their dismay. They were leading by a goal in KeyBank Center and disagreed with Rank’s decision to give Marchand an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, in addition to the two minutes he received for cross-checking Dylan Cozens.

The Sabres were without their best power-play weapon, center Tage Thompson, who was unavailable because of personal reasons, but their roster has enough skill and shooting talent to score quickly.

Marchand watched from the penalty box as the Sabres had only two shots on goal in four minutes, then he assisted on a Bruins power-play goal later in the first period as Boston controlled the special-teams battle to earn a 4-1 win over Buffalo in their first game after the NHL’s brief holiday break.

"I'm not gonna lie, it's deflating," Sabres defenseman Mattias Samuelsson said of the sequence.

Another early deficit made it challenging for the Sabres to mount a comeback. They own the league’s worst first-period goal differential (-22), and no team has allowed more goals (42) in the first period this season. The Bruins led 2-0 only 13:42 into the game because of a pair of coverage mistakes on goals by Mason Lohrei and Charlie Coyle.

Special teams were the primary reason behind the Sabres’ demise, though. Their power play went 0 for 6, while the Bruins’ scored on each of their three opportunities. The penalty kill’s stark regression is a recent development, and surprising when you consider that its best forwards are finally healthy. Buffalo has allowed nine power-play goals over its last nine games, and its penalty kill ranked 15th in the NHL entering play Wednesday.

"Obviously tonight we were on the wrong side of both special teams," Samuelsson added. "You’re not going to win a lot of hockey games like that. We can’t give up three. I think we have a really good penalty kill. We’ve just got to get back to the basics, pressuring the puck. Sometimes when we start overthinking it that’s when things aren’t going well. I’m not a power-play guy, but we obviously have to generate more than that with all those chances."

The power play has been a problem for a while. The Sabres finished last season ranked ninth in the league on the man-advantage, but their conversion rate was buoyed by a red-hot October and November. In 86 games over the past calendar year, Buffalo has converted only 16.2 percent of its power plays and ranks 29th in the NHL during that span. The Sabres are 2 for 29 over their last 10 games, they earned five shots on goal in 9:32 of power-play time Wednesday night and they're 26th in the league this season on the man-advantage.

A functional power play would have changed the outlook of the game Wednesday. The Bruins were ahead only 1-0 at 7:31 into the game when Marchand took his consecutive penalties. The Sabres had two shots blocked, Alex Tuch missed the net, Owen Power turned the puck over and Tuch missed the net again. They needed 2:21 of their four-minute power play to challenge goalie Jeremey Swayman with a shot on net, and both of their shots were by Jack Quinn.

The Bruins (20-7-6) have the NHL's second-best penalty kill and their power play is also among the best, but they didn't face a difficult test. The Sabres overpassed, missed the net, remained on the perimeter too long and looked indecisive.

"We’re overthinking everything," Tuch lamented. "We’re double-touching pucks. I’m double-touching on the goal line. I’m putting them out of a guy’s reach. We’re shooting when we shouldn’t. We’re not shooting when we should. We’re passing up good opportunities. We’re not supporting each other. It just adds up. It’s a snowball effect and each guy has to look at one another and try to work for one another because it’s five against four. We shouldn’t be out there getting out-chanced at times on power plays, where the PK gets more chances than us and that’s just not OK."

The Bruins took a 2-0 lead only a few minutes later when Coyle scored a power-play goal. The Sabres were down 4-0 late in the second period when the Bruins took two penalties, which gave Buffalo a 27-second 5-on-3. They had zero shots on goal in two minutes of a 4-on-3 and 5-on-3, essentially killing the penalties themselves by passing the puck around the perimeter, rather than creating chaos by getting shots on goal.
It wasn’t until 5:11 into the third period that Buffalo broke the shutout with Erik Johnson scoring on a slap shot from the right circle. Sabres coach Don Granato didn't like how his players weren't physically engaged in every puck battle. Their approach changed once they fell behind 1-0 only 4:19 into the game. A lack of "grind," as Granato called it, carried over to the power play. He saw enough from his team on the man-advantage that he plans to be more involved in power-play meetings and strategy, rather than strictly delegating to Matt Ellis, who's the assistant coach in charge of the power play.

"Those are things that are delegated through staff and at certain points you need more manpower on it, and I think that’s where we’re at," said Granato."

The Sabres (14-18-4) had their two-game point streak snapped, and own a 5-4-1 record against Atlantic Division opponents this season. Their roster is finally close to full health. Thompson is expected back Saturday against Columbus. Rasmus Dahlin should be OK after blocking a shot late in the game. They’ve been the better team at 5-on-5 against the Maple Leafs and Rangers, but they’ll have to fix their special teams to dig themselves out of a hole in the standings.
"We had one of the best power plays in the league last year and we’ve gotta get back to it, but it’s confidence," said Tuch. "It’s swagger, and we obviously don’t have that right now. We’re gonna work to get it back."
Here are other observations from the game:

1. Tough night

Devon Levi allowed four goals on 25 shots and prevented the Bruins from adding to their lead in the third period.

He made a clutch save on Marchand as the Bruins captain approached the Sabres’ net during a 2-on-1 seconds after he exited the penalty box in the first period. Levi also had a few impressive glove saves, improved his rebound control after the first goal and looked poised throughout the game. The Bruins’ third goal was a pass off Erik Johnson’s skate, and their fourth goal occurred on a borderline goalie interference, as a Boston player made contact while Levi tried to get to his left post.
2. Lineup changes
Granato eventually changed his lines after he saw from the bench that Tyson Jost wasn’t going to be able to center Jeff Skinner and Alex Tuch.
It was worth experimenting with Jost in that spot. After all, why change the entire lineup because one guy is absent? Casey Mittelstadt’s line with Jordan Greenway and Zach Benson was outstanding against the Maple Leafs and Rangers, plus Dylan Cozens was back with JJ Peterka and Jack Quinn.
Jost isn’t a center, though, and it became clear that a different skill set was needed on the Sabres’ top line, especially when they fell behind 2-0.

3. Coverage mistakes

The Sabres’ defensive-zone system isn’t the problem.
They play a simple zone scheme in which each player in 5-on-5 situations is responsible for a quadrant around their net. It is much easier to succeed with a system such as that than a man-to-man scheme such as the one run by Phil Housley during his time as Buffalo’s coach. However, it is startling how often we see coverage mistakes, particularly by forwards.
Lohrei shouldn’t have been first to the puck when Levi allowed a rebound on a James van Riemsdyk shot. Connor Clifton was out of position. Mittelstadt didn’t seem to know who to cover. A routine play turned into the opening goal. Then, Dahlin chased McAvoy behind the Sabres net during a Bruins power play, leaving Coyle wide-open in front, and the Boston center made it 2-0.

4. Next

The Sabres host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday at 5 p.m., then Buffalo will face the Senators in Ottawa on Sunday at 6 p.m.
This team will never be anything but a 500 or sub 500 team as long as this current coaching staff is in place. There is way too much talent on this team to be this bad.
Fire the HC and make a massive trade (if possible).

The Sabres don't need just one kick in the ass, they need two.