By Bill Hoppe
BUFFALO – The fall has been quick and hard. Two weeks ago, the Sabres, fresh off their NHL-best 12th win, led the Northeast Division and could sniff first place in the Eastern Conference.
Despite a slew of problems – their home woes and a long list of underperforming players, among other things – they somehow kept winning.
Today, however, the Sabres are reeling. With losses in five of six and seven of 10, they’re officially a team in crisis. Their latest setback, a 4-1 loss in which the scorching Detroit Red Wings outclassed them early, proved how far the Sabres must climb to hang with the NHL’s elite.
“That was a really good team playing well in the first period,” Sabres defenseman Robyn Regehr said. “I think everyone here would like to get to that.”
A victory over the Wings, who won their seventh straight, would’ve inflated the Sabres’ confidence and put their recent woes, including losses to both conferences’ bottom-feeders in a five-day span, in the rearview.
Instead, the Sabres imploded early in a statement game, falling behind 3-0 by the 14:41 mark. When the opening 20 minutes mercifully ended, the capacity crowd of 18,690 fans inside the First Niagara Center booed the Sabres off the ice, something they repeated after each period.
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff spoke Friday morning about the challenge the Wings would provide. But after the measuring-stick game, he wouldn’t compare his team to them.
“First, we got to get our players back. We really do,” said Ruff, whose Sabres began the game down six regulars and then lost wingers Nathan Gerbe and Patrick Kaleta. “It’s tough to play that team when you have a full roster.
“They’re not an easy team to play against. … They come out, they’re ready to play. They’re an old team, mature.”
A skate blade seriously cut Gerbe’s face from his nose down through his lip late in the game, Ruff said. Gerbe immediately threw his glove and hurried off the ice. He’s questionable for tonight’s tilt in Nashville. Kaleta, meanwhile, re-injured his groin in his return following a four-game absence. He’s likely out tonight.
“It obviously doesn’t look good, but we’ll have to see how he feels,” Ruff said.
The Sabres have Matt Ellis as a spare forward. They could recall another from Rochester, Ruff said.
Maybe the Sabres’ only road tilt over a nine-game stretch will help them refocus. They’re 7-3 away from the FNC. At home, however, not counting one European win, they’re a wretched 5-8-1.
They’ve fallen behind early several times already this season, a disturbing trend they can’t buck.
“Before you know it was 3-0,” Sabres winger Thomas Vanek said. “Down 3-0 against Detroit, you’re pretty much done.”
Jakub Kindl opened the scoring at 8:50, his wrist shot from the point getting through traffic and past goalie Jhonas Enroth.
Johan Franzen converted from the slot at 13:38, making it 2-0 on the power play. Valtteri Filppula then scored on the Wings’ next shot at 14:41, capitalizing after Sabres center Jochen Hecht lost the puck.
The Wings, who showcased some precision passing, outshot the Sabres 18-8 in the first period.
“Detroit’s one of the best teams you’re going to see,” Vanek said. “Every forward’s on the puck, they skate well. At times, I thought we matched it pretty good.”
Ruff acknowledged he thought about yanking Enroth, who he recently pulled twice over a seven-game period, following the first period. Ryan Miller was dressed from the first time since Nov. 12.
“Jhonas will battle,” Ruff said.
Enroth added: “I wanted to stay there, especially Ryan’s first game back. … It was pretty smooth sailing after the first period.”
Miller should get the nod tonight, however.
The Sabres settled down later. It was too late, though.
“In the first period, we didn’t play anywhere near where we’re capable of,” Regehr said. “That’s where it was. It’s not anything else other than that. We got a little bit closer to the way we’re supposed to go in the second and third, but it has to be consistent.”
Vanek said about the second period: “They gave us three power plays in a row there to get us back in the game. We had a few chances on it. But at the end of the day those got to go in.”
Only one went in – an even-strength score, Hecht’s third in five games. The snakebitten Sabres missed several prime chances.
“I don’t want to stand here talking about missed opportunities,” Ruff said. “We got to start cashing in.”
Pavel Datsyuk added an empty-netter later.