By Bill Hoppe
BUFFALO — “The main thing is start talking about it and just put it out there that we want to win a championship. We want to do it the right way, and we just have to hit a few checkpoints along the way and set ourselves up for it.” – Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, September 16, 2011
Nearly seven months after his upbeat chat as training camp opened, Miller and the Sabres will clean out their lockers today inside the First Niagara Center, officially ending a bitterly disappointing season in which a team built to win the Stanley Cup missed the playoffs.
The checkpoints, the seminal moments of 2011-12 – Milan Lucic’s season-altering hit on Miller and the Sabres’ tepid response, an annihilation in Detroit during a 12-game road losing streak, their fall into the Eastern Conference cellar Feb. 17 and others – doomed the high-priced, underachieving club.
Here’s some of what went wrong and contributed to the Sabres finishing ninth and missing the playoffs for the sixth time 10 seasons:
They never fully recovered from Lucic’s Nov. 12 thump
It was about seven minutes into their 16th contest when Lucic blocked Thomas Vanek’s shot and began a jaunt toward Miller that dramatically altered the campaign.
The Sabres began the day atop the Northeast Division and fifth in the Eastern Conference, a strong 10-5-0. They had just beaten a good Ottawa club 5-1 at home the previous night.
But in a few seconds, Lucic’s lick on Miller sent the Sabres spiraling into mediocrity.
The Bruins agitator obliterated the goalie as the two chased down a loose puck, knocking off his mask and concussing him in a wicked collision.
“They ought to clean his clock!” Sabres play-by-play announcer Rick Jeanneret roared from his perch above the TD Garden ice.
Instead, the Sabres barely pushed Lucic, letting him get away with hammering the franchise netminder.
Afterwards, Miller cursed out Lucic, who laughed at the Sabres. Veteran Paul Gaustad, who was on the ice for the incident, lamented his inaction. He fought Lucic later in the month.
Despite winning two nights later in Montreal, the Sabres endured a 9-18-5 stretch following the Lucic incident.
The hit exposed the Sabres as weak mentally and physically – a team that couldn’t handle adversity well.
Miller wasn’t his normal self
The 31-year-old had started slumping prior to his concussion, and then played the worst hockey of his career following his return, going 6-9-2 with a 3.32 goals-against average and .889 save percentage during a wretched 18-game stretch, according to statistician Mike Haim.
Clearly, he hadn’t fully recovered from the head injury.
Miller began tending arguably his best goal ever – 20-6-5, 2.04 and .932 – in late January when he found a groove again and his defense reached full strength.
If he had played even average earlier, the Sabres probably would’ve won five or six more games and reached the postseason.
Miller performed poorly late after the Sabres’ huge 5-1 win March 27 in Washington vaulted them into eighth place, posting bad numbers – 1-3-0, 3.74, .877 – to close the season.
They couldn’t score
The Sabres tallied only 211 times, just 2.6 a game, the fourth-lowest total in franchise history for a full season. They had averaged 256 goals a season post-lockout and scored 240 last year.
They turned it on late, however, tallying 51 times in the final 14 games. That’s 24 percent of their goals in 17 percent of the season.
Other than steady captain Jason Pominville, who scored 30 goals and 73 points, almost every other forward endured a terrible offensive season.
– Alleged No. 1 center Derek Roy compiled only 17 goals and 44 points. In full NHL seasons, he had averaged 27 goals and 71 points.
– Drew Stafford scored only 20 goals, 12 less than last season in 18 more games.
– Nathan Gerbe scored six goals, as many as he had in March 2011.
– Ville Leino, who inked a six-year, $27 million contract in July, mustered only eight goals and 25 points. Some observers say he could be the worst free agent signing in NHL history.
– Brad Boyes, a 43-goal scorer four years ago, hit eight goals after scoring twice in the Sabres’ meaningless 4-3 shootout loss Saturday in Boston. He was a healthy scratch in two do-or-die tilts last week.
While man games lost to injury is an unofficial stat, the Sabres had approximately 329. Eight teams suffered through more than them, including the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, who enjoyed terrific regular seasons despite missing superstars Sidney Crosby and Chris Pronger most of the year.
At one point, the Sabres had nine regulars sidelined. Top defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Tyler Myers both missed significant time.
They leaned on the injuries hard. Coach Lindy Ruff said he didn’t want to make excuses, but kept talking about wanting his team back. Owner Terry Pegula said the Sabres had to “get Humpty back together.”
Still, for the all the injuries, the Sabres constructed a team they believed could roll four lines and use six defensemen. They had legit prospects and $200,000 veterans in Rochester capable of taking a regular shift.
They possessed depth. Maybe it just wasn’t good enough.
When the Sabres lost Ehrhoff and Myers again late, they lost three of four to end the season.
They couldn’t win on the road midseason
The Sabres lost 12 straight on the road in regulation from Dec. 17-Jan. 21, hitting their nadir with a 5-0 shellacking Jan. 16 in Detroit.
Minus those losses, the Sabres went 18-8-3 on the road, so they’re capable of playing well away.
If they had gotten a couple games to overtime and earned the consolation point during their skid, the Sabres might’ve snuck into the postseason.
The Sabres have sent rookie defensemen T.J. Brennan and Brayden McNabb back to Rochester.