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Day at a Glance: Buffalo reshuffles

Sabres rethinking strategy heading into critical Game 4

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Posted: Tuesday June 15, 1999 01:37 PM

By Jamie MacDonald, CNN/SI

In the Crease
Sports Illustrated contributor Pierre McGuire, a former coach of the Hartford Whalers, dissects strategy for throughout the Stanley Cup finals.

What a lesson the Dallas Stars gave the younger Buffalo Sabres in Game 3. The Stars made the Sabres look as if they were skating in quicksand. The Sabres could not establish any flow because of the persistent checking and pursuit of the more experienced Stars. While Joe Nieuwendyk was a stellar offensive force, it was foot soldiers like Guy Carbonneau and Brian Skrudland who made the game so tough for the Sabres. The Stars are now on top of their game and the solid veteran leadership of that club seems to understand the price that must be paid to take home the Cup.

Dallas put on a defensive clinic. The Stars blocked 19 shots, covered the slot, and played nearly perfect transition defense. Offensively, the Stars finally started to use the net as a point of reference on their cycling plays, and by doing that they created a lot of down-low scoring opportunities. The Dallas line of Nieuwendyk-Dave Reid-Jamie Langenbrunner exposed the down-low coverage weakness of the Sabres for most of the last two periods. The Sabres are going to have to straighten out how they want to play down low in their own end and come up with better support-mode defense.

The Sabres must also find a way to get more pucks to the net and create second-chance scoring opportunities. The Buffalo power play can be successful (it was 0-8 in Game 3) if either Jason Woolley or Alexei Zhitnik can do a better job of getting to the middle of the ice when the Sabres have possession in the offensive zone. And if they can walk the offensive blue line, the Sabres defensemen will open up more shooting and passing lanes -- if not, the Stars will continue to block shots and frustrate the Buffalo attack.

Another thing that the Sabres must do is get better gap control in the neutral zone. In Game 3 the Stars gained the offensive zone far too easily because the Buffalo defensemen were back on their heels. Usually that can be a sign of a fatigued defense or a defense that is afraid to made a mistake. Either way the Sabres coaches know that they'll have to remedy that problem in a hurry.

Game 4 is really a Game 7 for the Sabres. The extra day of rest should help the older Stars, while leaving the Sabres to stew in all the questions that have been raised by their two straight losses. The Sabres need to get down in the dirt and win the one-on-one battles or their season will be over by the end of the week.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In the land where Dominik Hasek 's Hot Sauce sells like hot cakes, there should be an all-day breakfast special dedicated to Game 4 and it should be scrambled.

Going into Game 4, the Sabres are willing to scramble lines, scramble matchups and scramble strategy in order to avoid slipping softly into a 3-1 series sleeper hold.

Buffalo is quick to point out that it is down only one game, but that fact is not keeping the Sabres from tinkering with nearly every moving part under the hood.

Here's a look at the tactical changes Buffalo will use to try and even the series before heading back to Dallas:

  • Forecheck more aggressively. Hasek himself asked his teammates to be more agressive even though it may lead to hanging him out to dry. For what he makes and what he means to his team (he's a two- time Hart Trophy winner for crying out loud), the Dominator should be left alone a little more often.

    "He doesn't mind seeing the [occasional] odd-numbered rush, we know that," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "If we're going to pinch and gamble he's going to see some two-on-ones and some three-on-twos. He might even see a breakaway. But we've kind of gone by that theory throughout and we're going to go and make sure that we do that again tonight."

    Stars coach Ken Hitchcock, for one, isn't worried.

    "Look, that's the same thing [being more aggressive on the forecheck] we've heard from the other three teams," Hitchcock said. "If you get us, you get us. If you don't, you pay the price."

  • Move Joe Juneau to the Curtis Brown/Miroslav Satan line. Geoff Sanderson is one of the fastest forwards in the series, but Juneau is more careful with the puck, a better passer and a better defensive player. The thinking here is that with Juneau on the other side, Satan can focus on offense without the line's defensive responsibilities suffering.

    But Juneau does not perceive himself to be the savior.

    "You don't look at it that way at all," he said. "It doesn't really matter, I mean, this could be the line for [only] three or four shifts, you never know. Hopefully it's going to be the line for the whole game and that we're going to get out of it with a couple key goals for our team. You're not looking at the way guys have performed in the last few games. You're looking at going into a game playing with these guys, concentrating on just one game. That's all that counts."

  • Keep shifts shorter/rotate Curtis Brown and Michael Peca on the Joe Nieuwendyk and Mike Modano lines. "Where Dallas averaged maybe 30 seconds," Ruff said, "there were periods where they out- changed us two-for-one. They played two lines against one of our lines."

    Brown admitted to hanging on to his shifts too long.

    "I was guilty of that as well," he said. "You can't do that. You have to get out there, get the job done, go hard and get off and let the next guys go. That's exactly what they did the other night. That's been addressed and that's something you'll see different."

  • Take more chances at the offensive blue line. In Game 3 it seemed the Sabres became so aware of the Stars' breakout that both defensemen automatically backed into the neutral zone. "For some reason our defense didn't want to get involved the other night," said Ruff.

    "It wasn't the game plan to have them pull out. Our success in the first three rounds was because we pinched, because we had five guys involved, and typically we didn't give up a lot even though we played like that. We are going to try to get back to that. But in the same sense, if you don't get it deep ... it doesn't give our defense the chance to get invoved."

  • Forwards must come back. Imagine swining around behind Hasek with the NHL's best forecheck descending upon you, and your forwards haven't fully recovered from the offensive zone. Too often in Game 3 it was reality for Jay McKee and his fellow defensemen. "We got away from our systems a little bit," he said, "and that's why we lost. We went over some of the game tape and that's what we noticed.

    "We have to be playing our system if we want to beat this team. Dallas is very systematic and we've got to break them down."

  • Calm down a bit. "The one thing we did do [in Game 3] is we kind of went out of our way to keep hitting them and we wasted a lot of energy at times," Ruff said. "We want to finish all our checks, but we don't want to be running from one corner of the rink to the other end of the rink. We've got to be a lot more under control ... When it's not there, we just can't go looking for it."

  • Use speed more effectively. After hearing the question How do you beat these guys for the umpteenth time, a sarcastically annoyed Brown said simply, "Time and space, time and space is the answer."

    "[We] have to use our speed, which is one of our assets, to get in on them quick, cause them to turn the puck over and not give them that time. We have to battle to limit [their time with the puck] and when you do that you're going to give yourself a chance."

  • Skate and pass better. Ruff points to the Sabres having poor games in both -- similar to a baseball team going into a batting and fielding slump all at once -- and hopes the odds are on his side.

    "I don't think we are going to have another game where we combine the way we skate and the way we pass all in one. Granted they did a very good job ... but we feel that we are going to do a lot better job in the two areas of passing and skating."

  • Quit concentrating so hard at stopping the Dallas offense. Michael Peca said the other day that they played a stinker of a game and only lost 2-1, but that's why Dallas gives teams fits. If the Sabres weren't so committed to shutting the Stars' attack down, perhaps Game 3 would have been a 5-2 affair.

    "We haven't given them a whole lot," Brown said, "but maybe we are focused too much on defense. You can't go and totally abandon one or abandon the other, and maybe we have abandoned the offense a little too much. I know I'm going to go out and try whatever I can on the offesne and try to get things going. If you ask anybody in [the dressing room] they're going to do that, but it's not going to be at the expense on defense."

    Of course this is quite a drawing board the Sabres have returned to, and only some of these things may happen -- but Buffalo is willing to try everything.

    Could all of these changes work? Well, each tweak seems to be the sincerest form of flattery given to their opponents. The Stars forecheck aggressively, take short shifts, get the puck in deep, rarely stray from their system, almost always play under control, skate and pass really well and rarely need to worry about what the other team is doing as long as they play their game.

    Considering the Stars beg teams to play it their way, one can't help but think the Sabres are playing into the their hands.

    Brown admitted there's a lot the Sabres can learn from the way the Stars are playing and soon the Sabres may be learning a hard lesson.

    Storylines We're Following

    Dallas not concerned
    For all the tealk of expecting changes in all three zones for the Sabres, the Stars, will all due respect, aren't really going to react to any of the Sabres' wrinkles.

    "We have to expect them to come with their best game tonight," said Nieuwendyk, "and certainly we'd like to play our best game. It has the makings of a real good hockey game tonight -- maybe the best of the series."

    "They've been playing hard, they've been close games and tonight's going to be another hard game bu I don't change our focus or our philosophy or the way we play can change just because we think they may do something differently."

    Another groin pain
    We figured the most-talked about groin in this series would be Hasek's and the Stars' injury headliner would be Modano. Leave it to Brett Hull to steal the spotlight. A strained groin will sideline him for Game 4, but perhaps not much more.

    "It is just one of those things," Hull said. "It's not something that, you know, is bad enough where you know it hurts to walk ... It's just one of those things to wait and see how it feels when you test it ... It's minute by minute."

    Hitchcock, though, says Hull is out for tonight's game and perhaps even Game 5.

    Hull's replacement
    Hitchcock will most likely use Darryl Sydor with Modano and Jere Lehtinen . Hitch likes Sydor's energy, when he isn't trying to "kill everybody" and he'll change the complexion of that line by allowing Modano and Lehtinen to create their own offense. Modano also likes skating with Tony Hrkac, who also may see some action on the right side.

    Sabres power play
    Coming into the Cup finals, Buffalo's power play was the most successful in the playoffs, but in Game 3, the Sabres went 0-8 in 14 minutes and 14 seconds with the man advantage. Dallas, meanwhile, has only allowed three goals in 47 shorthanded situations in the playoffs.

    "Seems like we didn't get too many shots from the blue line," Satan said. "They blocked so many and a few missed the net."

    Lineup changes
    Michal Grosek is still out with an injured back. The Sabres called up Martin Biron , Dean Sylvester and veteran Randy Cunneyworth from AHL affiliate Rochester -- who lost Sunday night to Providence in the Calder Cup finals, three games to one -- but it appears only Cunneyworth will play.

    NHL's Three Stars
    Each day throughout the Stanley Cup finals, we'll take a look at three key individuals.

    Joe Nieuwendyk . Now, he's the man -- though a turned-loose Modano could change that in Game 4 -- and may face the Peca line Tonight. Contributes so many ways, finds ways to get himself open and he also won 13 of his 18 faceoffs in Game 3.

    Dave Reid . Both Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner will tell you what a difference he makes for them on the ice. Now he'll get some more attention.

    Miroslav Satan . After a 40-goal season, Satan will play the role of scapegoat if he goes oh-for-the-series.

    Buffalo's ice "The only way you can carry this thing [the puck] is to put it in your pocket." -- Curtis Brown
    Attitudes Dallas obviously upbeat, but Buffalo is eager to get into Game 4
    Sabres play in the neutral zone One obvious place to generate offense
    Shot-blocking Mutombo would be proud of The Stars still plan on dropping, even though Game 3 was thought of as the bigger game
    Football-style tailgating Looking forward to the Game 4 parking lot in front of Marine Midland
    Sabres' faithful Once inside the rink, they'll form a sea of red shirts and chant the catchy LET'S GO BUF-a-LO way
    No excuses Stars' motto appropriate reflection of head coach
    Curtis Brown Answered the same question 10 times as though it were the first

    Related information
    Day at a Glance: Firing up Satan
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