Day at a Glance: Buffalo reshuffles
Sabres rethinking strategy heading into critical Game 4
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 CNNSI.com 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
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
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
"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
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
Brown admitted to hanging on to his shifts too long.
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
"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
"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.
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.
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
Considering the Stars beg teams to play it their way, one can't
help but think the Sabres are playing into the their hands.
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
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
"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
"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
Another groin pain
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
"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.
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.
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."
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
| NHL's Three Stars
| Each day
throughout the Stanley Cup finals, we'll take a look at three key
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
Buffalo's ice || || "The only way you can
carry this thing [the puck] is to put it in your pocket." -- Curtis
| 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
| No excuses || || Stars' motto appropriate
reflection of head coach |
| Curtis Brown
|| || Answered the same
question 10 times as though it were the first |