BUFFALO, N.Y. — It’s still early to say anything definitive about the 2023-24 Buffalo Sabres, but there have already been frustrating moments 11 games into the season.
One came with a little more than eight minutes left Friday night. The home crowd of 16,000-plus started to dwindle as fans headed for the exits after a Bobby Brink goal put the Philadelphia Flyers up 5-1 over the Sabres. Boos were scattered the rest of the night.
Another moment of frustration came from Sabres center Dylan Cozens with less than two minutes left. He picked a fight with Flyers veteran Garnet Hathaway. Hathaway beat him handily, and as Cozens walked down the tunnel toward the locker room he grabbed the portable stairs and slammed them against the wall.
It was that kind of night for the Sabres, who are 5-6 and struggling to find any consistency from game to game. This loss snapped a two-game winning streak, the Sabres’ longest winning streak so far this season.
Wednesday night, the Flyers outshot the Sabres 40-15. Buffalo needed a stellar performance from Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and three third-period goals on just four shots to escape Philadelphia with a win. Friday, the Flyers had 61 percent of the expected goals at five-on-five, according to Natural Stat Trick, and got the result on the scoreboard.
“We didn’t get enough pucks behind them,” Sabres captain Kyle Okposo said. “We didn’t play the game that needed to be played. They outworked us in that first period, for sure, and that’s not something we’re going to take lightly and that’s not something we should ever be saying after a game is we got outworked. It’s frustrating. There’s going to be games where we’re flat, but coming off a game on Wednesday where we didn’t have our legs and we look a little bit complacent, to come out flat is disappointing.”
It’s just one game in a long season, but the Sabres also know the value of each game after missing the playoffs by a single point in the standings last season. You can write off one bad game or one lousy effort, but the inconsistency within games is becoming a theme. Coming out flat is, too. It happened on opening night against the New York Rangers and in a home loss against the Montreal Canadiens. The losses are starting to follow a pattern.
“I can answer lots of questions and answer lots of ways, but we have to be more direct and more decisive in what we do in a collective manner and on the same page doing that,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I don’t want to say we played as individuals, but we have to play more predictable as a unit of five. That is, keep pucks moving forward, keep pressuring pucks as they move and pucks to the net. We can break it down lots of different ways, but if you get that resolved, lots of different things will sort themselves out.”
That’s a wrap on this one. pic.twitter.com/9wq6pZ4NEu
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) November 4, 2023
The Sabres are back at it Saturday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, so they have a chance to put this one behind them quickly. What concerns should they have heading into that game?
1. Forward depth is a problem for this team. Victor Olofsson has been a healthy scratch for three straight games. He’s without a point in the six games he has played this season and is a minus-1. His $4.75 million salary made him tough to trade in the offseason, and that’s not going to get any easier given the way he’s started the season. But his spot on the roster would have been better used on a player who could provide the bottom six with consistent energy and competitiveness.
The Sabres got a spark from Zach Benson early in the season, but he cooled off after an injury and is now on injured reserve. Buffalo called up Brandon Biro and Lukas Rousek after both started the season strong in Rochester. It’s tough to gauge anything from such a small sample size with Biro and Rousek in the NHL, especially since Friday was such a rough game for the entire team. But the Sabres need to determine quickly if those two can help provide more depth in the forward group, because competition is needed. Isak Rosen and Jiri Kulich are having productive seasons in the AHL, but both are still young and need time to round out their defensive game before getting to the NHL.
The only short-term solution I see is Matt Savoie. His conditioning stint with the Amerks will end Saturday after he plays his sixth game with Rochester. He has two goals and five points in five games in the AHL. Once his conditioning assignment is over, the Sabres either need to make room for him on the roster or send him back to the WHL. By the looks of it, he could provide a jolt to Buffalo’s lineup.
2. Buffalo’s power play is the third worst in the NHL, and the numbers got worse Friday. The Sabres were 0-2 on the power play against the Flyers and are now 3-for-32 on the season. Only the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks have been worse on the power play than the Sabres. It’s not a matter of poor puck luck, either. The Sabres are in the bottom five of the league in expected goals on the power play, too, according to Natural Stat Trick. Granato put Casey Mittelstadt on the top unit in place of Cozens on Friday, and the puck movement looked smoother. But the Sabres were still too hesitant to shoot. They had only three shots on their two power plays. The power play is holding the Sabres back from being the offensive team they were last season.
3. Mattias Samuelsson left this game early with a lower-body injury. That left the Sabres playing with five defensemen, and the results weren’t great. Owen Power was on the ice for all five Flyers goals and seven high-danger chances against. The Sabres are counting on the 20-year-old to be one of their best players, but he looked overmatched by the Flyers’ tenacity on the forecheck. Buffalo’s other stars followed suit. Tage Thompson generated chances but was on the ice for two goals against. Alex Tuch was on the ice for three Flyers goals. The Sabres, at times, had Cozens play on a line with Biro and Rousek, two players just called up from the AHL, and the results weren’t pretty. In six minutes of ice time, that line allowed four high-danger chances against and didn’t generate any high-danger chances. The Sabres need their best players to be the ones leading the way. That’s not happening consistently enough.
(Top photo of Owen Tippett taking a shot during the third period against the Sabres: Timothy T. Ludwig / USA Today)