Krueger links Sabres’ scoring funk to team’s fragile psyche

The trouble with the Buffalo Sabres’ sudden inability to score has more to do with players’ heads than hands, as far as coach Ralph Krueger is concerned.

“One of my biggest takes out of that game yesterday was the fragile psychological state of the team right now,” Krueger bluntly said Friday, a day after a 3-1 loss at Washington.

“They’re fragile right now. They don’t believe in themselves and they don’t see themselves celebrating.” he added. “They see themselves missing the net, hitting the shaft of the goalie, not finding the hole between the legs that they usually find.”

Krueger spent a brief practice having players focus on puck-handling to work on their timing, while also preaching positive messages during numerous one-on-one conversations.

The Sabres are in a funk and there are few signs of when they’ll climb out of it in preparing to play at the New Jersey Devils on Saturday.

In dropping three straight since returning from a two-week COVID-19-forced break, Buffalo has scored just twice – both power-play goals – and went an entire period without generating a shot on net in a 3-1 loss to the New York Islanders on Monday.

It’s not as if the Sabres were over-powering opponents before their season was paused. In opening 4-4-2, Buffalo managed just 28 goals, with a league-low 15 scored in five-on-five situations. The lack of scoring has led to Buffalo giving up the first goal in 10 of 13 games this season.

The offensive outage is particularly apparent among Buffalo’s top-paid forwards. In accounting for a combined $38.2 million of the team’s payroll this season, captain Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner, Taylor Hall, Kyle Okposo and Sam Reinhart have combined for just six goals – with Reinhart scoring three.

Buffalo is instead led by third-year player Victor Olofsson‘s six goals, five of which have come on the man advantage.

Time is already beginning to run out in a shortened 56-game season in which Buffalo’s troubles are further exacerbated by a constricted schedule which leaves little room for practice. As a result of having six games postponed, the Sabres are playing their final 46 games in 83 days, and won’t enjoy their first multiday break until April 4-5.

Buffalo is in the midst of a nine-season playoff drought, the NHL’s longest active streak, and one short from matching a league record.

The most troubling part of Krueger’s assessment was the difficulty he had explaining how the confidence the Sabres’ are generating from their power-play production isn’t carrying over to even-strength situations.

“I’ll be really honest with everybody here that I’m trying to figure that out,” he said. “It’s no easy fix, but if we do get that momentum, we will be strong.”

Eric Staal, who has three goals, said it’s important everyone simplifying their game.

“There’s definitely some fragility there when teams are not finding success,” Staal said. “There’s guys pressing. There’s guys that want it real bad. But there’s a way and I think a simpler way that we can get there. Hopefully, that starts tomorrow.”

RISTOLAINEN UPDATE

Krueger didn’t provide a timetable in saying veteran defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen faces “a long process” before he can return after experiencing a severe bout with COVID-19. Krueger also said Ristolainen has experienced a setback in his recovery.

Of Buffalo’s nine players affected by the recent outbreak, Ristolainen spent a team-high 14 days on the NHL’s COVID-19 list. In being cleared to skate on Wednesday, he was not expected to join the team for its current four-game road trip, which closes at New Jersey on Tuesday.

On Friday, Ristolainen revealed he experienced chest pains and significant drops in oxygen levels in a story published by the Finnish newspaper Ilta-Sanomat.

“When there was chest pain, it felt like my heart was cracking as I walked up the stairs,” Ristolainen said, according to a Google translation of the story printed in Finnish. “A couple of evenings there were such conditions when I went to bed that I didn’t know if I woke up here anymore in the morning.”

Defenseman Jake McCabe, who also tested positive, said he and Ristolainen texted each other while they dealt with the affects of the virus.

“Risto’s probably the fittest guy on our team,” McCabe said of his teammate, who normally leads Buffalo in ice time. “For him to battle like this, it’s very tough and unfortunate. But knowing Risto, he’s going to be just fine, and he’ll be back here hopefully soon.”

Scroll Down For:

    Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
    0 Comments

    Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

    The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

    Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

    “We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

    Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

    “I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

    Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
    0 Comments

    OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

    The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

    Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

    The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

    Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.

    Blackhawks’ Boris Katchouk sidelined by ankle sprain

    blackhawks
    Harry How/Getty Images
    13 Comments

    CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced.

    The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

    The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

    The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.

    Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

    Getty Images
    3 Comments

    ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

    The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

    The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

    Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

    The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.