By Allan Muir
There aren’t any easy answers anymore in Buffalo.
No team loses more draws than the Sabres. No team allows more shots per game, on average. The Sabres rank 27th in goals-against. They might have the least effective breakout in the league. Their stagnant power play is a disgrace, although a sweet Thomas Vanek deflection on a five-on-three chance Sunday against Pittsburgh snapped an 0-for-14 skid with the extra man.
Even Ryan Miller has battled inconsistency, vacillating between a 38-save win over the Bruins and a 17-save loss to the Habs. But he’d been on a bit of a roll, putting together a .944 save percentage over his previous four games coming into Sunday’s tilt with the Pens.
Sunday was one of those days that reminded you just how good Miller once was, and how good he could be again. His game was colored by patience, not desperation. His movement was calm, precise and he kept his rebounds under control. He made big stops at big moments to keep the game within reach, none bigger than this save on James Neal that left the Pens shaking their heads or laughing on the bench:
And then, just 64 seconds after that save, Miller allowed Paul Martin’s point shot to float by him, handing the game to the Penguins after they’d fought back from an early 2-0 deficit.
After the game, Miller went on the sort of stammering, expletive-filled rant one normally hears only after a leg lamp has mysteriously broken.
“It’s just a [expletive] way to lose. I don’t understand. Your guard has to be up at all times. They get right back in the game, one broken play to seal it for them. [It's] just preventable and not what we need to be doing right now.
“Just [expletive] losing at the end. It’s 3-3, get to overtime. It’s 3-2, [expletive] make him come all the way down, worked too hard, I don’t know.”
It seemed like Miller was on the verge of blaming his teammates for using up all the glue on purpose, but he recovered. Sort of.
“I thought from a couple tough bounces to start, good goals by them, a tip and a play of the end wall. We recovered and we played really well. It was our best second period we’ve had. We’re neither competent enough or experienced enough with the lead in the third period. It burned us. It’s not acceptable.”
He’s right, of course. Outside of Cody Hodgson, this isn’t a team that counts on young players to do the heavy lifting. The Sabres simply shouldn’t be this fragile, but there’s the captain, Jason Pominville, playing what had to be his worst game of the season, making a boneheaded decision in the defensive zone that led to Pittsburgh’s tying goal. There’s Tyler Ennis bailing on his assignment on the fourth.
And there was Miller himself, who might benefit from a glance in the mirror after allowing Martin’s goal.
It’s getting too easy to point fingers in that room. Too many nights of too many mistakes. It’s has to be getting old.
On the other side of the room, Steve Ott wanted to focus on the team fighting back from that early deficit in his post-game comments. That makes sense. He’s new. It’s not his place to rip anyone.
But the long-timers have to know better. This is a group that’s lost its way, just three points out of eighth, but only three points out of the cellar, too. And the cellar feels a whole lot closer.
Fair to say then that the next five games will reveal everything we need to know about this team. Five winnable games: the Jets and Islanders at home, the Leafs, Lightning and Panthers on the road.
Come out of this 4-1, maybe even 3-2, and this group buys itself time to look inside the room for the answers that should be there.
Anything less, and even Terry Pegula should understand that something has to change.
And don’t bother looking for the easy way this time.