The hardest thing for a fan is to go through the ups and downs of an entire season only to see the brutal truth 16 games from the end: Your team is not going to make the playoffs.
The Buffalo Sabres were not mathematically eliminated last night in Philadelphia by their 5-2 loss to the Flyers, but anyone with hockey sense can see this team does not have what it takes to be a playoff team.
The Sabres managed to hang with the Flyers through two periods with the score tied at 1-1, but the Flyers clearly played better. They controlled the puck in Buffalo's zone and rushed into the Sabres' end in waves.
Buffalo, in contrast, rarely managed to control the puck for more than a few seconds in Philadelphia's zone. Too often, all that Buffalo could muster was to carry the puck past the red line, dump it into the Flyers' end, and go off on a change.
In the third period, Buffalo was caught napping as Thomas Vanek let his opposing center, Jeff Carter, slip by him and lead a three-on-two rush that resulted in a goal just 27 seconds in.
A successful Philadelphia power play made it 3-1 less than five minutes later. Less than two minutes after that, an ill-advised attempt to pinch at the blue line with no support from the Sabres' wings led to a two-on-one and a 4-1 lead.
The game and most likely the season was over, as Buffalo's playoff rivals gained points by winning or losing in overtime.
This game, like Buffalo's season, was not decided by a talent imbalance. The Flyers are not that much better than the Sabres on paper. Two factors have doomed the Sabres to mediocrity this year.
First, their best players have not produced. Jochen Hecht, Jason Pominville, and Max Afinogenov have all had subpar years.
But, far more importantly, the Sabres simply do not win the majority of one-on-one battles that ultimately determine the outcome of most hockey games. When two players go into the corner, one player must come out with the puck. All too often, that player is not a Sabre.
There was an obvious difference between the Sabres' and the Flyers' penalty kill. The Flyers killed off 3-of-3 penalties, while the Sabres let the Flyers score on two of their six chances.
The Buffalo defenders stood back four or five paces from the Flyers' point men, giving them the opportunity to pass the puck and make plays. In contrast, the Flyers' forwards consistently challenged the Sabre with the puck for control, giving the Sabres no time or space to make a play.
It is an aggressive tactic. To beat this strategy, the Sabre with the puck needs to beat his man, which would result in a momentary five-on-three opportunity. But the Sabres cannot consistently win those one-on-one battles.
The Sabres try hard. They battle back from deficits, and they do not give up. But intensity is not enough. There needs to be a purpose to that intensity. How many times do we see two Sabres battling behind the opposing goal for the puck, managing to get control, and passing it out front only to see there are no Sabres in front of the net to receive the pass?
The Sabres talk a lot about playing and trusting the "system," but frankly, I am not sure the team really knows the system. Unlike other teams' big lines, like Spezza-Alfredsson-Heatley or Carter-Lupul-Hartnell, Lindy Ruff juggles the Sabres' lines nearly every night. Linemates just do not seem to have that sixth sense of knowing where their partners are and what they are going to do.
Given the fact that several Sabres are having season-long scoring slumps, Ruff's efforts to find some combination that consistently works is understandable, but his cure may be as bad as the disease.
The Sabres are hanging by a slim thread. Could they string together five or six wins and vault back into playoff contention? Stranger things have happened (see the Buffalo Bills signing TO). But given that the Sabres have won four games in a row only twice this season, a winning streak and a spot in the playoffs are probably not realistic.