- Damien Cox, NHL
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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Sabres, it's fair to say, have looked everywhere.
They've checked inside the old Buffalo Auditorium -- still standing, by the way -- just in case they left it there. They've looked inside Ted Saskin's inbox, dusted off the "French Connection" time capsule and peered inside both Rick DiPietro's crease and Jaromir Jagr's cluttered head space.
But still, the Sabres just can't seem to find their A game.
You know the one. The crowd-pleasing, rollicking circus show that roughly approximates the rat-tat-tat-tat effect once produced in these parts by Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and the rest of the bickering Bills when NFL defensive coordinators lost hours of sleep trying to figure out how to stop them.
Of course, given the way that particular sporting venture turned out -- four times to the edge of immortality, four steps back -- it's not necessarily a comparison these Sabres would invite.
Still, here we are at the conference finals stage of the NHL postseason, and we're still waiting for the Sabres to start playing with the edge, panache and style that captured the NHL's regular-season crown over an 82-game grind.
That certainly wasn't the case in Game 1 at the HSBC Center on Thursday night, when the Senators struck early, let the Sabres catch up and then pulled away with a three-goal third (two goals were supplied by the Sens' fourth line) to grab a 5-2 victory and steal home-ice advantage.
The Sabres gave the puck away early (three Ottawa breakaways in the first 10 minutes) and gave it away often (19 times), and could have easily drawn assists on three of the five Ottawa goals.
"Was it nerves? Maybe we were a little rattled," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said. "A lot of our guys uncharacteristically gave away the puck."
The Senators were very good and have now won nine of 11 games this spring after pounding their way through the Pittsburgh Crosbys and the Lou Lamoriello-coached New Jersey Devils.
The Sabres? Maybe it was their worst game of the spring, or maybe it was more of the same -- a better opponent better able to exploit the opportunities Ruff's team was offering up. Even the most optimistic Buffalo hockey fan would tell you it's been an uneven ride.
Things started out OK despite some nagging concerns that Buffalo just didn't seem to be clicking on all cylinders. The Sabres were able to get past the New York Islanders in five games in the first round. The Isles, however, just weren't up to the challenge. Rick DiPietro was rushed back into action from concussion issues, Sean Hill took something he shouldn't have and the Isles ran out of Wade Dubielewicz miracles.
It was assumed that once a more formidable opponent showed up, the Sabres would snap to attention. That happened with a second-period offensive explosion in the opener of the second round against the Rangers, giving Sabres fans that warm, familiar feeling.
But then, the Rangers started to push back. Buffalo got through Game 2 with a win after trailing in the third period; but since then, the Sabres have been lurching from one inconsistent moment to the next. They went to Manhattan and lost two in a row, both tight ones, but two losses nonetheless. The Rangers had more spit in their game and Henrik Lundqvist seemed to have all the necessary answers for Sabres shooters.
Then, in Game 5 back in Buffalo, the Rangers, for the most part, dominated the Sabres. Martin Straka's late goal in the third put the visitors up 1-0, seemingly setting up the unthinkable -- that the two teams would go back to the Big Apple with the Presidents' Trophy winners facing elimination. But Chris Drury scored with 7.7 seconds left in regulation and Maxim Afinogenov scored in overtime (his headlong slide across the Sabres logo at center ice was not one of his favorite dives, but rather the celebratory result of potting the winner on a slap shot from the high slot). In Game 6, Ruff's squad put away the Rangers 5-4, but not without the same third-period wobbles that were in the deciding game against the Islanders.
Then came Thursday's stinker. Suddenly, after winning six of their first seven playoff starts, the Sabres have won only two of their last five, and one of those victories required the Drury miracle. Clearly, the Rangers put up stiff resistance. But the Senators may just be the NHL's hottest, most confident team right now, at least outside of Orange County.
Why can't the Sabres find that A game, something they're going to need if they hope to get back to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1999? There are some easily identifiable problems:
• The big guns aren't firing
In Game 1 vs. Ottawa, Daniel Briere didn't even manage a shot in less than 16 minutes of ice time and left the building without offering a word of explanation. Briere has two goals in the postseason. Thomas Vanek, after a breakout regular season, seemed poised to enjoy more of the same in these playoffs after scoring three goals in the first two games against the Rangers, but he's gone cold since. Ditto for Jason Pominville, who has one goal in his last six.
Tim Connolly and Dainius Zubrus have yet to score, while Derek Roy has one goal.
Afinogenov had that Game 5 winner against New York, but he was scratched the game before that and, in the opener against Ottawa, spent more time looking to the referees for calls than fighting for ice. That said, he did produce the first Buffalo goal on Thursday night, continuing his up-and-down postseason.
• The power play is awful
It was 0-for-5 in Game 1 of the East finals; but more problematic was the deflating effect it seemed to have on both the Sabres and their fans as the Buffalo extra-strength unit failed to even get consistently set up in the Senators' zone.
Locals, of course, would tell you this has been a problem all season long, rather counter-intuitive given the firepower Ruff has at his disposal. Overall, the Sabres were 17th at extra strength during the season (good at home, but terrible on the road). When Connolly returned late in the regular season, the team hoped he would add some creativity, but it just hasn't happened with consistency. In the playoffs so far, the Sabres are just 9-for-64 (14.1 percent), the worst of the final four.
• The Sabres are looking a little vanilla
As one Rangers observer suggested in the second round, the Sabres have a lot of players who look about the same to the opponent. Winger Paul Gaustad returned late in the Rangers series and it was remarkable how his simple, hard-hitting approach stood out amidst his dipsey-doodling teammates.
Adam Mair is another Sabres forward who offers a different look, but he only played 7:07 in the opener against Ottawa. Zubrus was a surprisingly hard-hitting Sabre during the Rangers series, but, against Ottawa, he seemed to revert back to being the kind of perimeter player that has driven coaches nuts during his NHL career.
• The absence of an energy line or defined checking unit
This, of course, also speaks to the Sabres' strength -- they can put out four lines capable of scoring and with the primary goal of scoring. It was interesting, then, to see Ottawa's fourth line of Dean McAmmond, Oleg Saprykin and Christoph Schubert enjoy such success in the conference finals opener. In a tight, fast game, having a forward line to throw the opponent off balance can be a very useful tool.
• A blue line that rarely wants to make the simple play
Again, this is a strength of the Sabres -- that they have a defensive crew that can snap tape-to-tape passes and show more creativity exiting the defensive zone than the other 29 NHL clubs combined, rarely resorting to using the glass as a simple outlet.
But when it goes bad, it looks really bad.
Dmitri Kalinin looked paralyzed by the playoff yips in Game 1 against Ottawa, and his partner, Teppo Numminen, simply gave the puck up on what turned out to be the winning goal by Saprykin. Toni Lydman, paired with Henrik Tallinder, was actually the smoothest-looking Buffalo rearguard in the opener, and he's generally relied on for his defensive prowess. He also blocked four shots.
The Sabres are a very confident team, and they should be. Facing their first series deficit of the postseason, most expect a terrific performance in Game 2 against the Sens, one that will quiet those who keep waiting for that A game to show up.
But it's worth pointing out this isn't a new problem. Even when winning this spring, the Sabres haven't been making everyone happy.
So, they'll just have to keep on looking. Maybe the 17th green at TPC Sawgrass?
Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."
21hDanny Knobler, Special to ESPN.com