Kyle Okposo wasn’t the only one who noticed the troubling trend. Bad habits crept into the Buffalo Sabres’ play for weeks, even during the 10-game win streak. Players took note of the issues following those remarkable comebacks and dramatic finishes, but they had confidence they could win no matter what.
That is no longer the case. The Sabres, 17-9-4 with 38 points, have lost five in a row, and hit their low point by allowing six unanswered goals in a 6-2 loss to Philadelphia on Saturday. Rather than holding an exhaustive practice Sunday morning, they gathered for a team meeting inside KeyBank Center for what Okposo called “tough conversations.”
They wanted to reflect on all that went wrong and how it can be corrected ahead of their home matchup against the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night. It began with addressing what Okposo and Jack Eichel described as a lack of effort against the Flyers.
“We’ve been pretty good at home this year and I think that that game might’ve been coming for a little bit,” Okposo, an alternate captain, said. “That’s unacceptable. We’ve addressed it and we feel like we have a pretty good plan in place for how to deal with it and how we’re going to come out on Tuesday. We’ve just got to get back to being us and we’ve got to learn from that game for sure.”
The Sabres were outshot by the Flyers, 41-30, and allowed four third-period goals, beginning with Claude Giroux’s shorthanded goal when Sam Reinhart committed a turnover in the offensive zone. The three goals that followed were the result of breakdowns in front of the net.
It was the fourth blown lead during the five-game streak. Entering Sunday, the Sabres were nine points behind Tampa Bay for first place in the Atlantic Division. Ten days earlier, Buffalo owned the best record in the NHL.
The Sabres are spending too much time in the defensive zone. Since the five-game skid began Nov. 29 in Tampa Bay, they have allowed the third-most goals and shot attempts in the league. During that span, Buffalo’s also allowed the sixth-most 5-on-5 scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick, and has a negative-8 goal differential.
Their league-worst 43.3 faceoff percentage during the skid is partly to blame. They’re also not forechecking well enough to sustain possession and are failing to beat opponents to loose pucks. While it appeared the defensemen were to blame for poor breakout passes against Philadelphia, the onus was also on the forwards to get into position.
“For us, it can start in the neutral zone,” Jeff Skinner, held scoreless in three straight games, explained. “We want to be quicker in there and set ourselves up a little bit better, so we can spend more time in the offensive end. I don’t think we’ve spent enough time in the offensive end. … It sort of puts you on your heels.”
That was also a problem during the win streak. The Sabres were outshot in seven of those 10 wins but were opportunistic with scoring opportunities. That helped them earn nine one-goal victories, seven in either overtime or a shootout.
They were generating enough chances in the offensive zone to make up for bad habits in their own zone. Seventeen different players scored during the win streak, and their Corsi-for percentage – which measures possession time by using shot-attempt differential – was the fourth-highest in the NHL.
It’s been the second-worst over their last five games, and the top line of Skinner, Reinhart and Eichel has accounted for 10 of their 12 goals. The Sabres were critical of their play during the win streak, Okposo in particular. He expressed fear that he and his teammates were straying away from what made them successful.
The schedule was not forgiving, either. The Sabres played 11 games in 19 days, including six on the road, against some of the NHL’s best teams and 11 of their last 19 games have gone to overtime or a shootout. That has left little time to self-evaluate and fix any issues with their play.
“I think we just probably should’ve done a better job during that win streak of really taking an honest look and fixing some things as we go,” Okposo said. “Yeah, we’re not going to practice as much because we’ve played so much hockey, but you can still talk about it. You can still fix it. That’s been addressed. We’re going to get back to work tomorrow in practice and just get back to being us.”
Their matchup against the Kings will be only their second game in seven days, a break that’s allowed for some much-needed rest and practice time. Jake McCabe, Marco Scandella, Casey Nelson and Carter Hutton were all unavailable Saturday against the Flyers.
It’s unclear if any will be ready to rejoin the team at practice Monday morning at HarborCenter. Phil Housley, who did not speak to reporters Sunday morning, spent Friday’s practice tinkering with his struggling power play, but he will likely revisit the basic tenets of the Sabres’ play.
“We should’ve nipped it earlier but we’re here now and we’re addressing it and we’re going to fix it,” Okposo said.