By Stu Hackel
Sometimes you can only scratch your head in wonderment when you examine the genius of the NHL schedule.
With the World Junior Championship taking over HSBC Arena (bringing victories for both Canada and the U.S. in their opening games on Sunday night), the Sabres are forced to hit the road. As the official hosts of the tourney, it might be good for both Buffalo’s bottom line and for hockey — giving another U.S. market the chance to experience this great event — but from a competitive standpoint, the city is sacrificing its NHL club to an extent by forcing it to pack its bags for a spell.
But this is a case of no good deed going unpunished: The Sabres asked the NHL schedulemaker to give them a home date on the tourney’s off day between the round robin and the medal round, and that day is Jan. 1. It would have been reasonable to think that the NHL would not fling the Sabres out west, bring them back home for that one game, and then yo-yo them back out west again. But that’s just what has happened. The Sabres are in Calgary on Monday night and Edmonton on Tuesday. They sneak back home for the New Year’s Day game against the Bruins, but then go right back out for games in Colorado, San Jose and Phoenix.
Now, when the Ottawa Senators hosted the WJC in 2008-09, they went west for three games, then came back to play in Toronto and New Jersey. That’s a reasonable schedule, but, for some reason, it was no template for this year. The Sabres are eight points south of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and 1-4-2 in their past seven road games while being outscored 22-11.
To make matters worse, the Sabres will begin their boomerang trip and what could be the defining portion of their schedule by adjusting to the loss of their top offensive player, Derek Roy. Roy tore his left quadricep tendon on Thursday after being checked by Florida’s Dmitry Kulikov and falling into the boards. Roy is scheduled for surgery this week.
The road has also been treacherous this season for other clubs. The Kings, for example, were on top of the Western Conference earlier this season, went on an extended trip and lost five of six. The Canadiens have dropped three of the first four games on their current seven-game voyage (including Sunday night to the Islanders who — gasp! — have now grabbed nine of a possible 10 points in their last five games, led by NHL First Star of the Week, goalie Dwayne Roloson). The Flyers are about to embark on their biggest road trip of the season and will play nine of their next 10 away from Philly. Without Chris Pronger, it should be a very telling stretch.
“I never look at the schedule during the season as something to make an excuse or create an excuse,” Sabres GM Darcy Regier told Mike Harrington of The Buffalo News. “For me, the schedule is the schedule and everyone has good parts and tough parts.”
Classy of Regier to say that, but one imagines him saying it through gritted teeth.