It's no secret that the Buffalo Sabres' defense has struggled so far this season.
In the past three games, the team has allowed 14 goals, and very few, if any, can be attributed to Ryan Miller's play.
So going into tonight's tilt with the Ottawa Senators, the Sabres need to get their defensive corps straightened out to have a shot to compete in the offensively stout Northeast Division.
So what is the Sabres' problem?
Realistically, a Lindy Ruff coached team is never expected to be defensively weak. Ruff's system is defense-first, and teams with far less talent on the blue line than this one have been extremely tough to score on in the past. So what's different now?
The long and the short of it is the passivity with which the Sabres' are playing in the defensive, and especially the neutral zone.
For example, take the second and third goals from Sunday's loss to the Florida Panthers, and break them down. The second goal was a cluster of issues, stemming from a shallow offensive zone turnover by Alex Sulzer. Marcus Foligno made the correct positional play, rotating in for Sulzer and covering the blue line for him, but Sulzer was stripped and the puck was easily chipped by a flat footed Foligno.
The rush was on with Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann leading and George Parros trailing. Sulzer skated back and engaged Weiss, but Christian Ehrhoff kept retreating back toward Miller, creating a lane for Parros who was free due to Tyler Ennis being low in the Florida zone when Sulzer turned it over. The result: Parros scores.
If Ehrhoff had been more active and had stayed on his feet, taking the passing lane away with positioning, he would have been able to step up on Parros, possibly causing a turnover, or at least forcing him to pass to Fleischmann who was in an innocuous position on the side of the net.
The third goal was extremely similar.
The puck started from just inside the Florida zone, with a pass to to Peter Mueller that he tapped to Drew Shore right around the Sabres-side faceoff dot in the neutral zone. Tyler Myers and Ehrhoff began retreating into the Sabres' zone immediately upon the pass from Tomas Kopecky to Mueller, and did not engage in the slightest when Drew Shore received the Mueller pass and drove into the zone.
Myers took away the lane to the net, but Shore was able to play a bounce pass of the end boards back to himself, which turned Myers around, allowing Shore to dump a pass across the slot to Mueller who shoveled in the backhand for the goal.
Myers and Ehrhoff simply cannot give the Panthers' transition a free pass into the zone like they did. Despite the solid in-zone positioning from Myers, he gave Shore plenty of room to make a play for himself. Ehrhoff was soft on the break-in and then even softer on his coverage on Mueller as he drifted to the top of the crease without paying him any mind until Shore makes the pass, which is of course too late.
In short, Ruff needs to get his defensive corps attacking rather than reacting in the defensive zone. While the reactionary style allows for better positioning, it gives the other team more time to set up in the zone and create plays, especially on any kind of rush, be it odd-man or even numbers.
Myers and Jordan Leopold are struggling right now and that's because they are not actively defending. They are letting the play come to them, and at the NHL level that is not a successful formula. Brad Marchand's first goal against the Sabres last Thursday is a perfect example of Myers simply not closing a gap that needs to be closed and getting beat to the net.
Mike Weber has been the best Sabres defenseman the past few days because of his willingness to quickly close gaps and his tough play in the neutral zone. If the rest of the Sabres' defenseman can start to do this, the defense will shore up in no time, but if they do not, look for Miller to be hung out to dry a lot.