Originally written on Red Light District Hockey  |  Last updated 1/19/12

Following last night’s debilitating blowout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, the Buffalo Sabres have now lost 10 consecutive games on the road. It was their third straight loss overall which not only kept them in 11th place in the Eastern Conference -- nine points behind the Florida Panthers for the final playoff seed –but also kept them only three points ahead of 15th place.

These Sabres are struggling to score goals and struggling to prevent them. In their eight January games, Buffalo has allowed three-or-more goals in five contests while scoring two-or-less markers in six of those games. In short, they are finding ways to lose games.

“We’re not dealing well with adversity,” coach Lindy Ruff explained following the loss. “Until we learn to win again, we won’t win on the road. We’re not dealing well with those situations.”

On the first game of back-to-back games, Ruff simply could not afford to sit any of his players. Some of them were banged up, others sick. Playing in Chicago before heading north to Winnipeg the struggling Sabres needed to stay fresh for yet another road tilt.

“We’ve got several players that are way away from their game,” Ruff said. “We’ve got some guys I thought that were good tonight but we didn’t have enough of them. And I thought again our defense struggled on the first couple goals on our coverage.”

If you read between the lines, Ruff is claiming that his hands were tied. While it would be appropriate to bench Ville Leino following his no-look, behind-the-back to nowhere which led to Marian Hossa’s breakaway/game-winning goal, Ruff could not. He was already dealing with an injury to Paul Gaustad and his top-line center Jochen Hecht feeling under the weather.

Ruff simply has had to make do with what he was given. And while new owner Terry Pegula opened up the checkbook in order to make upgrades at nearly every position, their new acquisitions and higher-paid players simply have not lived up to their billing.

Some of the blame can be put on their abnormally arduous schedule. The Sabres play a total of 20 back-to-back games which includes 11 of them in their past 12 weeks culminating in tonight’s game against the Jets. Their record over those games: 9-10-2. Their record otherwise: 19-22-5. In other words, the schedule likely has attributed to their rash of injuries but their overall record has been mediocre most of the season.

Their main problems likely stem from a team-wide losing mentality which accounts for over half of the team playing below expectations.

Starting with their product between the pipes, Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth are playing well below their expectations. Miller boasts especially poor peripherals, only posting a GAA under-three in one of the season’s four months. In three November starts he averaged nearly six goals per game before settling down with averages of 3.23 and 3.44 respectively.

By comparison, Enroth has been as bad, or worse. He followed up Miller allowing five goals on Monday by letting six get past him last night. After a steady October and stellar November, the Stockholm, Sweden native also regressed to post 3.35 and 3.06 ratios over the last two months.

Without steady goaltending the Sabres will not go far. Last year, Miller was able to propel them into a late playoff seed with his best post-All-Star performance of his career; Miller won 13 of 26 starts with a steady 2.44 GAA and .921 SV%. When they made numerous upgrades up front and on the back end the Sabres envisioned their starting goalie getting back to his Vezina Trophy winning form – an expectation that has simply not been met.

However, he can’t be blamed for all of the team’s woes. After all, they’ve dealt with an exorbitant amount of man-games lost with everyone from Thomas Vanek to Brayden McNabb missing playing time. Furthermore, most players not named Vanek or Jason Pominville have struggled to play up their salary.

The aforementioned Leino has been suspended, injured and generally ineffective, posting only three goals and 10 points over 35 games. Putting those numbers in perspective, 365 players have more points, 330 have more goals. He average $4.5 million per season, which is 500K more than Derek Roy, Drew Stafford and Brad Boyes – a troika of underachieving forwards.

Those struggling offensive players combine for roughly 26 percent of the team’s allotted salary cap. Couple them with struggling/injured defensemen like Jordan Leopold, Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff and nearly 43 percent of the cap is tied into players who aren’t jelling. Adding Miller and Enroth into the mix the percentage skyrockets up to 54 percent.

So with the problem being more than half of the team, is it time for a major trade?
For that very reason trade rumors have circulated over Miller getting traded in various different scenarios. Nevertheless, with a wide range of problems, creating one hole just to fill another likely won’t change their outlook.

Similar to last year, Ruff and company will need to be near-perfect to clinch a playoff berth. As he mentioned, some of their players were good; he now needs more of them to step up.
Photo credit: Getty Images
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