VANCOUVER – The Buffalo Sabres are the worst team in the National Hockey League’s Eastern Conference. And, this week, they were the best team in Western Canada.
Tells you something about the teams that play out here.
The Vancouver Canucks were embarrassed 4-0 Thursday by the Sabres, two nights after Buffalo hammered the Edmonton Oilers 5-0. The Sabres’ far west trip began Monday with a 2-1 overtime win against the Calgary Flames. Buffalo preceded its roadie with a 7-1 home loss against the Dallas Stars, which was the Sabres’ sixth defeat in seven games.
The Sabres have been a pathetic franchise this decade, shuffling through coaches and managers while missing the playoffs the last six seasons and finishing at or near the bottom of the overall standings five times.
But apparently, there’s nothing wrong with them that couldn’t be fixed be relocating over the border and across the continent. Saskatoon Sabres, Surrey Sabres? How about Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump Sabres? Yes, there is such a place in in the foothills of the Rockies.
Buffalo’s three-game winning streak is its longest of the season and increased its points total by nearly 20 per cent in the in the span of four days.
The Sabres were not what people here expected. Even the teams playing them seemed surprised. The Canucks shouldn’t have been.
Plagued by inconsistency, among many other flaws, the Canucks should have been energized and prepared for the Sabres after beating the Los Angeles Kings 6-2 Tuesday at Rogers Arena.
But they followed one of their best games of the season with easily one of their worst periods.
The Canucks trailed 1-0 after 4 ½ minutes and shots were 6-0 Sabres after five. Needing to make it physically hard on Buffalo, which was playing for the third time in four nights, Vancouver registered only two first-period hits. Two! They rallied themselves in the second and increased the intensity level – to five hits.
It might be the easiest game the Sabres have all season. And because they’re the Sabres, that’s saying something.
“We weren’t getting to pucks, weren’t winning the one-on-one battles, weren’t getting hits,” Canucks winger Daniel Sedin said. “If you’re getting hits, at least it shows you’re skating. We showed against L.A. how good we can be, but that doesn’t matter if you don’t bring it every night.
“We talked about it before the game that we needed to come out as hard as we did against L.A. We need that consistency in our game, game to game and within games. Instead we’re up and down and up and down. As long as we do that, we’ll win one, lose one and be an average team.”
The Canucks would need a nine-game winning streak to be average.
They’re 19-24-6, including 8-13-3 in Vancouver. They’re 5-14-2 since injuries derailed their season. But they’re relatively healthy now, yet still played awfully for the first half of Thursday’s game.
“It’s really frustrating, especially after beating a team like L.A.,” defenceman Alex Biega said. “That was an emotional game. We think we’re getting back on track and then we lay an egg against Buffalo.
“They were jumping, getting to pucks first. They were playing physically throughout their lineup and we just weren’t. It’s as simple as that. They were playing with energy. We just couldn’t match that for whatever reason. We can’t have excuses.”
The Canucks weren’t hard to play against by any measure.
Their physical meekness was coupled with positional carelessness. The Sabres were not made to earn their goals.
On Buffalo’s first goal, Canucks centre Bo Horvat and the rest of his teammates yielded the slot to Scott Wilson, who skated untouched out from behind the net and forced a save from goalie Jacob Markstrom. Sam Reinhart, also ignored by the Canucks, scored on the rebound at 4:27.
Nicholas Baptiste made it 2-0 on a breakaway at 12:49 of the second period, two passes after Jake Virtanen’s blind puck drop to no one at the Sabres’ blue-line caught Vancouver’s defence on a change.
Kyle Okposo scored from two inches out to make it 3-0 on a power play at 16:37 of the third period after Markstrom spilled Marco Scandella’s unscreened point shot behind him. Johan Larsson added an empty-netter.
It was difficult to remember one really difficult save Buffalo goalie Robin Lehner had to make for his shutout.
“We don’t exactly have a bunch of big power forwards,” Canuck defenceman Michael Del Zotto said when asked about his team’s lack of physicality. “But it’s the commitment level – getting on the forecheck. . . getting in front of guys in all three zones.
“We talk about consistency all the time. We’re not going to win every game. But it’s the commitment level, the compete level that has to be there every single night.”