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Drop the gloves during the playoffs with SI.com's writers in the NHL Cup Blog, a daily journal of hockey commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
12:41 AM ET, 5/27/06

In need of healthy defensemen

Posted by E.M. Swift
Buffalo News columnist Bucky Gleason put his finger on it, though Sabres coach Lindy Ruff isn't buying. "This team of nobodies likes to think it can win with anybody," he wrote in Friday's edition. "But it's not that simple."

No, it would appear not. Certainly not after watching the Carolina Hurricanes demolish the wounded Sabres 4-0 Friday night to square the Eastern Conference finals at two games apiece.

The Sabres' defense is decimated. Buffalo has lost three of its top five defensemen in the past 16 days, and in spite of Ruff's brave protestations, no NHL team can survive that sort of personnel erosion. Not this late in the playoffs. Not against a team as solid, and healthy, as the 'Canes.

Dmitri Kalinin was the first rearguard to go down. He broke his ankle against Ottawa on May 8th, but the resilient Sabres were able to overcome his loss by replacing Kalinin with journeyman Rory Fitzpatrick, 31, who had just six games of playoff experience in his career before this year. Pulling together, Buffalo knocked out the Senators, the top team East, in five games to advance to the conference finals.

The next defensman to fall was 17-year-veteran Teppo Numminen, who'd been logging more than 20 minutes of ice time a game -- the sort of steady performer who's invaluable in postseason play. He pulled a groin on May 20th and is listed as day-to-day.

This loss, too, the Sabres were able to overcome, stepping up to take a 2-1 series lead over Carolina, a team that had 112 points this year. Swedish defender Henrik Tallinder and Finland's Toni Lydman were logging the most minutes on the blueline, and both compiled stunning plus-14 totals through the first fourteen games of the playoffs.

But in the final minutes of their 4-3 win in Game 3, Tallinder, the man the Sabres could least afford to lose, broke his arm on a relatively innocent looking hit, ending his season. Tallinder had been the Sabres best player in these playoffs. In 14 games, he had only 12 giveaways, had 23 blocked shots, 23 hits, while logging over 22 minutes of ice time a game. He also had two goals and six assists, frequently starting transition rushes with pinpoint breakout passes. There was no way the depleted Sabres could fill the void he left, not having already lost Numminen and Kalinin.

Of course the players and coach Ruff said all the right things entering Game 4. Tallinder's loss was an opportunity for someone else to step up. It would make it that much sweeter when they won. They were a team that had been overcoming adversity all year.

But brave words don't make plays. Players do. And Carolina coach Peter Laviolette knew where his team should attack. "Anytime you take some big minute defenseman out of the lineup, you're going to pay a price," he said. The 'Canes forwards would dump the puck in and give chase, hitting the first defenseman to pick it up.

Without Kalinin, Numminem and Tallinder, the Sabres were forced to dress a pair of rookies who'd spent the entire season with the Sabres top farm team in Rochester -– a team that missed the AHL playoffs -- Jeff Jillson, who skated with the Sabres all of two games back in November, and Doug Janik, who hadn't played a single regular-season NHL game all year. Ruff decided to pair them together. It proved to be a costly experiment, as Carolina's all-important first goal came after Jillson turned the puck over behind his own net. "I should have moved it quicker," he later said. "It's a learning experience. No excuses. I just have to be better."

Jillson was also on the ice for Carolina's third and fourth goals and was a team-worst minus-3 on the night. Janik, too, was on the ice for the third goal, a rebound buried by an uncovered Andrew Ladd. And while the two rookie rearguards certainly weren't the sole reason Buffalo lost -- the forwards didn't score, after all -- they were a liability that Carolina was able to exploit. Asked if he'd considered going only with his four experienced defensemen, Ruff defended the rookies: "I thought our defense played reasonably well for us. If you're looking at the defense as the reason we lost this game, you're looking in the wrong place. We can use that as an excuse, but that's a bunch of crap."

Ruff, like most good coaches, is not one to sling around excuses. Not at this time of year. You play the hand you're dealt. But the bottom line is, the Sabres have been cut, and they are bleeding. They may not be a team of stars, but neither are they a team of replaceable parts. Tough as he may talk about players pulling together and stepping up, Ruff just can't expect young players who've spent the year in the AHL to fill the shoes of his best defensemen. One, okay. Two, maybe. But not when you've lost three.

The Sabres need at least one of their three fallen defenseman to return for Game 5 -- Numminen is the only realistic possibility -- or look for Carolina to win this series in six.


Posted: 9:18 AM   by Anonymous
Wow! An obituary. Don't bury them just yet.
Posted: 10:30 AM   by Anonymous
Defense isn't to blame when you post a big Goose Egg. Go Canes !
Posted: 12:23 AM   by Anonymous
The Sabres stunk on Friday, no one is denying that. No one is ignoring that the D is in shambles. But goodness give the boys some respect and realize they are not just gonna roll over now. They've come to far. They still believe in themselves and that's all that matters. All playoffs long, they've bounced back from bad games. Granted, they had a full roster for the most part, but jeez the series is tied 2-2. Last time I checked BOTH teams still have to win 2 more games to make it to the cup. The Sabres are not going to give up now, nor do I expect the Canes to give up. There is a reason both of these teams are still playing.
Posted: 12:23 AM   by Anonymous
Remember, defense with the Sabres starts a lot of plays, because they are so mobile. But you play with whom you have, and it's time the Sabres step up.

Go Sabres!
Posted: 6:40 PM   by NHLFREAK89
Tim Connolly was by far buffalos best player during the begining of the playoffs he played the piont on the power play played on the penalty kill and was tied for top of the point leader board with 11 points. The sabres havnt exactly been the same since and wont be. now that they have lost three defencemen the sabres have a long hard road ahead they need defencemen but i also think their offence took a blow after connolly's concusion and they need to get some scoring from a team that probably has the best depth in the league so dont count them out
Posted: 10:33 AM   by Anonymous
Reading E.M. Swifts blog several days later brings me to the realization that the Stanley Cup Playoffs are as good as it gets in professional sports. Regardless of the outcome, what we are seeing here with the Sabres will be one of the great stories of all time. A complex story that is bringing out the best of everyone involved. The Sabres were in fact dead, as Swift reported. Don't forget they lost their most talented forward in Tim Connolly too. It isn't just the loss of these four that makes it difficult, but the load of minutes that goes to the remaining players takes a toll in each game, making the struggle even greater. The series itself has been one of the best ever, with two well-matched teams in a monumental prize fight. Let's hope the Sabres have more left in the tank so we can see a great game seven.