Ask a dozen fans about what went wrong last night and you’ll get a dozen different answers. Some have already been quick to blame “the system.” Blaming the system might be the easiest excuse but is it actually the problem? Not from where I stand. Housley and Taylor aren’t asking for anything revolutionary. They’re not even asking for something new. The style of hockey they want their respective teams to play has been around as long as the game has been played. What they refer to as their system is what many refer to as old-time hockey. So what’s keeping the Sabres from winning? What broke the Amerks season opening winning streak? Let’s take a look at what’s plaguing the teams.
Saying the players weren’t ready to play is a cop out. Shoot the puck, crash the net, and bury the puck. These aren’t unusual requests to make of players. Yet if you watched last night’s game vs. the Utica Comets you saw the Comets’ crease well guarded and the slot devoid of Amerks. Was Utica that effective at keeping players out of the shooting lane? Not really, the Comets just made it a punishing place to be, and few players were willing to pay the price. While the Amerks managed to register 33 shots—3 more than the Comets—the majority of those shots came from outside and many were at bad angles. Had someone been in the slot there were opportunities to bury the puck. No one was there. Instead, players hung out along the boards, safe from the physical play that the slot demanded. It’s not that players weren’t ready to play. They weren’t willing to play.
Last night the best chances came from Bailey and Baptiste. Nick Baptiste took 8 shots. Bailey took 3. That’s a third of the team’s game shot total, which makes it no surprise that they had the best scoring opportunities of the game. Baptiste was absolutely robbed by the Comets’ goalie Thatcher Demko on a one-timer. To Baptiste’s credit he definitely tried to make up for a slow start to the season. Bailey thought he scored. While he played it safe by skating behind the the net he managed to flip a puck up and over Demko. The puck was flipping towards the far top-corner, ultimately missing it’s mark—but not before Bailey threw his hands up in the air. It was a fairly good attempt but had Bailey been willing to stay in front of the net it very well might have been a goal. Instead the shot came from a sharp angle and ended up sailing to the opposite corner of the ice. The two scoring attempts had one thing in common though—both chances came from near the net. Not from along the board or the top of the zone.
Chemistry is a problem. There’s a lot of new blood in the organization. It’s going to take time for lines to develop chemistry and to find defensive pairings that work well together. Right now the organization is plagued by lines that aren’t meshing. There’s no magic solution to this problem. If the organization can’t build chemistry, trades will be necessary. There’s little doubt that Botterill and Sexton have already discussed potential moves.
It’s time to make the opponents pay a price. We’ve seen a couple of guys step up. Colin Blackwell picked a fight with Joseph LaBate, who has 7 inches and 30 pounds on Blackwell. The fight went exactly as the stats would predict. Blackwell was quickly tossed to the ice, but not before he got in a few shots on LaBate. While Blackwell stepped up to the challenge, his team didn’t rally behind him. There wasn’t an increase in intensity. There wasn’t an increase in physical play. Aside from stick taps as Blackwell returned to the bench, you’d be hard-pressed to spot a change in the way players approached the game. I’m sure Blackwell intended to rally the troops, but the troops need to be receptive to encouragement. The Amerks need to make opponents pay the price for breaching their zone. That requires big hits and punishing players hanging out around their own net. While the Comets made the area around their net a difficult place to be, the Amerks were not willing to hand it right back to them. It’s not a matter of coaching. Whether in practice or in a press conference both Housley and Taylor have reinforced this point.
So how do you summarize the problems? Players need to dig in at the opponents net. They need to aggressively clear the area around their own net. Right now they are not doing either. The problem isn’t the system—it’s that players aren’t willing to play the system they’re being asked to.