The Sabres just skated off on the short end of a 1-0 result in Game 3 against the Ottawa Senators and find themselves looking up the steep walls of a 3-0 hole in games.
What's happened to Buffalo?
The Sabres won the President's Trophy in the regular season, largely on their ability to score goals -- they led the league in scoring. But there is a deception in that. Buffalo is a very balanced team, a characteristic that could wear down lesser teams. But they lack a certain high-end skill level. There really isn't a true "elite" player on their roster. Daniel Briere has had a nice year, but he might be in the best possible setting for his skill, too. Chris Drury is one of the true "clutch" players in the league, but he's never been a point-a-game player. The Sabres have almost an entire squad of what amount to 3-4 defensemen instead of a real "top pair" type. It was more than enough, in the regular season, to mask a weakness...
Buffalo was second (to Detroit) in the NHL in 5-on-5 effectiveness during the regular season. They lead the playoffs in that measure this spring by a wide margin. But in the regular season the Sabres special teams were rather average -- 17.4 percent on the power play (tied for 17th) and 81.4 percent in penalty killing (20th). The "special teams index" (power play success plus penalty killing success) of 98.8 was virtually identical to that of Boston (98.9), which did not make the playoffs. That weakness has been magnified and exploited in the playoffs. While the Sabres dispatched the Islanders quickly in the opening round, they struggled with the Rangers in the second round in a six game series. The last five games of that series were of the one-goal variety, and two of them went to overtime. Ottawa is not dominating the Sabres in this third round series, but they have been the better team over most stretches of play.
It is at this time of year when Buffalo's balance at the expense of high-end skill might be working against them. They have no consistent answer -- either on offense or on defense -- for the Senators' top line of Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Dany Heatley. This is reflected in a difficulty in special teams play at both ends, which has been a problem for the Sabres in this tournament -- a carry over from the regular season.
Look again at the idea of the "special teams index." Buffalo's mark of 89.0 so far in the playoffs is 14th among the 16 playoff teams -- only Atlanta and Minnesota are worse. In this series, that index stands at 76.5, including a big "o-fer"(0-for-18) on the power play. Compare that 89.0 number with the other three teams remaining in the playoffs:
Special teams are killing the Sabres, but it's a slow death that really began in the regular season.