Here we go. Again.
You can pretty much set your calendars to it every season, but it doesn’t make it any less noteworthy: the Pittsburgh Penguins are managing to stay competitive despite several key injuries while the Buffalo Sabres seem determined to continue on with their decade of futility.
The Sabres haven’t made the playoffs since the 2010-2011 season. President Obama was still in his first term, Jack Eichel was in high school and Dan Byslma was in just his second year as Pittsburgh’s head coach.
Buffalo’s top scorer in that postseason — Marc-Andre Gragnani — has been out of the league since 2014.
But forget about the five head coaches, last-place finishes and countless players that have rolled through Western New York since then for a minute.
This year was supposed to be different, and it certainly started off that way.
Under first-year head coach Ralph Krueger, Buffalo got off to a blazing hot 8-1-1 start. They were winning games on both ends of the ice, got contributions from some key free agent acquisitions, and won the close games they had found ways to lose in the past.
But when the first sniff of adversity hit, the Sabres folded. Injuries to role players Marcus Johansson, Vladimir Sobotka as well as several banged up defenseman was apparently too much for the Sabres to overcome.
Buffalo is 2-6-2 over its last 10 games and has lost to some of the NHL’s worst teams in that span. But perhaps nothing better illustrates the differences in the makeup of the Penguins and Sabres than the Tuesday night’s results.
The Penguins, going up against the New York Islanders (31 points through 19 games) without the likes of Sidney Crosby or Kris Letang, gave the Isles all they could handle. Pittsburgh took a team with the second best record in the Eastern Conference to overtime, before suffering a competitive 5-4 loss.
The Sabres, meanwhile, had a golden opportunity to snap out of their slump. Buffalo was hosting the Minnesota Wild, which had the worst record in the Western Conference before puck drop.
By now, you know how they did. An embarrassing 4-1 loss to a team that had just 16 points with the only highlight of the night coming via a second period fight that Eichel had with a Minnesota player.
Speaking of Eichel, anyone else feel horrible for the 23-year-old? Eichel, of course, was the Sabres’ second overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. This floundering Buffalo franchise is all that he’s known in his four and a half years in the league. The Sabres have finished no better than sixth in the Atlantic in that span — despite the best efforts of one of the league’s most talented young players.
Eichel is far and away the best player on the team again this year.
He has 13 goals (five more than the next closest), 25 points (eight more than anyone else) and seems to be one of the few players on the team willing to put in maximum effort on a nightly basis.
And here lies another stark contrast between the two franchises. The Penguins have been without Sidney Crosby — one of the best players to ever lace up skates — for the better part of two weeks. What’s happened in his absence? They’ve gone 5-2-3, stayed in contention in the Metropolitan and have had depth players step up without their captain.
Jared McCann has 13 points, Dominik Kahun has five goals and Sam Lafferty has seven points in 14 games. Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of those guys...that’s the point.
The Sabres just went through a three-game stretch where their only goals were scored by Eichel, including a four-goal performance against the Ottawa Senators last Saturday.
This season is extra special for Sabre fans, as the organization’s ‘Golden’ season has been filled with numerous promotions, visits from former players and even a new third jersey.
It’s been a trip down memory lane for lifelong supporters that have been with the team through those glory seasons in the 1970s and 90s.
Don’t they deserve something more from this franchise?
The good news for them is that it’s only November and the Sabres have the better part of 50 games to play. But given how this team has performed over the last decade, why should they have any confidence that this is the year they turn it around after another dismal stretch.
Here we go. Again.
(Anthony Sambrotto, the Era Sports Editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).