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Behind The Bench: Sabres struggle in return from COVID-related hiatus

The Buffalo Sabres have returned to playing hockey after a COVID outbreak kept the team off the ice for nearly two weeks. With the team on a losing streak, Buffalo Hockey Beat reporter Bill Hoppe recaps the Sabres status and recent struggles.


The Sabres and Captials take to the ice in Washington Thursday starting at 7 p.m.

Nick Lippa: The Sabres Missed almost two weeks of hockey because of COVID concerns. Where do they stand health wise at this moment?

Bill Hoppe: They’re finally getting back to just about full health. And this has been hard. It’s really stunning when you think about it. That they went from a clean start to the year, they play for a couple weeks, and they got 10 games in and all of a sudden, they played those games against New Jersey, and it hit them immediately. At one point, they had nine guys out. And for the guys who were on the list who played already, three of them said that they tested positive. And I'm amazed that these guys are able to come back so quickly from this. I realize that they're professional athletes, and it's their job. But Tobias Rieder came back. He played Monday night after having just one morning skate with the team. And he skated on his own, I believe, but for him to go through COVID and to sit idle for a couple weeks and be able to play a game. And he played back to back games. He played Monday and Tuesday after going through that and not being able to skate or work out. I'm amazed that these guys have been able to do that.

And since they've come back, what were some of the challenges that they've had to go through? They've already played two games. You mentioned that they've almost got their roster back, but they had to play a couple games without some key players.

BH: Yeah, for the first time this year, they really had to dip into the taxi squad and not just to give a guy a look. They really needed these players and we saw the first appearances of Will Borgen, Brandon Davidson, Steven Fogarty. So the Sabres depth has really been tested here the past few days. But I think the biggest challenge they faced these last two games against the Islanders is they sat idle for 15 days. Yes, they practice but nothing replicates game action. So they have this two week break. And they have to play an Islanders team that's basically been playing while the Sabres sit idle. And that's extremely, extremely difficult to do. The pace of the NHL season, the grind, the rhythm of everything, it's so difficult. And to just, basically try to pick that up one day, it's very, very hard. And we saw that the Sabres, they had some good energy early on Monday, but that trailed off later in the game. And by the end of the game, the third period, they didn't get a shot on the Islanders who play a very, very rigid, tight system. And then of course, there's been the Sabres scoring woes.

And the scoring woes have been almost laughably unlucky it seems. It just seems like nobody can score, especially from some of the team's most talented players. Is there anyone you think the Sabres need to get more production from moving forward?

BH: Yes and it's a problem across the board. I mean, the Sabres have five even strength goals in the last seven games. I mean, that's a stunning number. They have zero even strength goals these past two games. They have one goal overall. You're going to look to the Sabres top guys, and they're just not getting it done. Jack Eichel has two goals this year, one at even strength. Taylor Hall has one goal this season way back on opening night and it's a power play goal. Victor Olofsson has five goals. But four of them are on the powerplay and it just goes right down the lineup. And then, of course, there's Jeff Skinner, whose scoring problems started last year, and here we are 12 games into the season and he still doesn't have a goal. But I mean, you go further down the list. There's Cody Eakin who is not a guy you think to have a big score. But maybe he's a 15 or so goal guy. He has zero goals and one assist this year. So if the Sabres want to go anywhere and climb up the standings, they have to get production from their top guys, they have to get even strength scoring. And for Jack Eichel to have one even strength goal and for Taylor Hall to have none. I mean, that's stunning. And Taylor Hall mentioned it after Tuesday's loss that he wishes he had four or five goals right now. If he had four or five goals, you sprinkle those throughout the season, the Sabres have had some tight losses. Who knows how many more wins they could have? That could be two, three more wins this season.

Heading into the next couple of games, what needs to happen to get in the win column? it seems like the Sabres have lost some close, winnable games this year.

BH: They have played a lot of close games and we saw on Tuesday night's game against the Islanders, they went up 2-0 early on and for a team like the islanders to get a 2-0 lead, I mean, it's like a 4-0 lead. They’re just so hard to play against, so hard to crack. But right after they went up two goals, Taylor Hall had a breakaway on rookie goalie Ilya Sorokin and that's a situation Taylor Hall, a former MVP facing a goalie who has played four NHL games-- you expect Taylor Hall to exploit the rookie goalie and then the Sabres can get back in the game and he can get some confidence and the Sabres can get some momentum, but he got stopped on the breakaway. The Sabres have had some chances. They've had some bad luck, but I mean, you need a guy like Taylor Hall to score in that situation. And they've played some close games against the Capitals this year, their Friday opponent. They've already played them four times. They beat them once. They played well enough, in my opinion, to beat them two other times.

You can read Bill Hoppe's articles at his Buffalo Hockey Beat website and at BuffaloNews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BillHoppeNHL. 

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.