Let us go back to the days of last season before January 1st. The Sabres of yesteryear had their foot on the proverbial throttle. Consecutive win streaks, destroying franchises in a single game (Philadelphia) and generally wrecking havoc. During the month of October, the Sabres scored 53 goals (4.8 a game!) and by the end of the season, won the Northeast Division by 8 points.
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However, as Sabres fans can attest, something happened to that team in the second half of the season that didn't show up in the score sheets. They started taking periods off. They started taking games off. Often, it seemed like the Sabres starting playing in the last 10 minutes of the game.
This has been well documented by other columnists as "flip the switch" mentality whereby a team thinks it can play and win whenever it wants to and usually doesn't play until its lead or win are in doubt. You can see this in other sports. For example, the Lakers when they had Kobe and Shaq were often described as flipping the switch come playoff time. The problem with this mentality is that teams can get too deep into "holes" during the game and not even their talent can save them.
At first, last season, I didn't believe the Sabres had that mentality. I looked at their Boston game on November 2 (where they scored 3 goals in the third period to eventually force a shootout win) as indicative that the Sabres could not be stopped, not that they stopped playing during the game. I believed Miller when he said: "We were in a deep hole. This shows we don't quit."
As I said previously, something happened after the calendar turned to January and the Sabres were playing listless for whole games. After the Minnesota Wild loss, the team was described as "struggling" and Derek was even quoted as saying "We have a lot of firepower... everybody knows that...I think it's just a matter of execution."
Of course, we all know what happened in the postseason. The Sabres played down to the Islanders, barely beat the Rangers and got blown out by the Senators.
This season, there were very few positive changes to the roster in order to counteract this malaise of the mind. Bringing in the oft-injured Thibault (who looked injured again last night), not adding anything to the defense (I don't give much weight to Spacek playing well now, just ask any Oilers fan about his up and downs) and losing 2 captains on the offense suggested that nothing was really done to fix what ailed the Sabres mentally.
Last night's game reawakened my fears. The season so far has been uneven. Manhandled by the Isles, blowing out the Thrashers and Caps by a combined score of 10-3 and then last night's game. Yes, the Sabres hit multiple posts over the first 2 periods and yes they were playing a "starting" goaltender in Raycroft vs. the Sabres backup but to me, the effort was not on the ice in the first two periods. They found themselves down 2 goals in the third period and rallied back to beat the Leaves in OT. Of course, we are talking about the Leaves here, the ultimate 3rd period collapse team. However, I hope the Sabres don't have the same mentality as last year that they can be down by 2 in the third and everything is ok.
As Tim Connolly said after the game: "I thought we played our best hockey once we got down by two goals. We never gave up. We started to play desperate, play physical, and really get pucks to the net." But why weren't they playing desperate hockey BEFORE the third period? I realize the season is long and there is pacing involved but I hope that the Sabres realize they have to come out with guns blazing right from the start or history will be doomed to be repeated.
The season is 5 games old. As the old Douglas Adams saying goes "Don't Panic" but I hope that the Sabres learn from the past and keep playing hard every night.
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