Wednesday night was just like any other night at “The Rock” in Newark, New Jersey. But in the match against the Buffalo Sabres, it was a special night for coach Lindy Ruff. This contest marked his 1,000th career game as head coach of the Buffalo Sabres, making him the 18th person to achieve this milestone.
In his 13-year career, he has led the Sabres to a 488-370-142 record. Only seven NBA coaches and 78 MLB managers have accomplished the feat of 1,000 games for the same professional major sport team. Since he was named head coach on July 21, 1997, there have been 155 coaching changes in the NHL.
In Wednesday’s matchup between the Devils and the Sabres, both teams came in with goalie problems. Both Ryan Miller and Martin Brodeur continue to remain sidelined. Jhonas Enroth was given the nod for Buffalo, while Devils backup goaltender Johan Hedberg took to the net.
Both teams have gotten off to a rough start this season. Coming into this contest, the Devils were 4-10-1 (9 points), while the Sabres were 4-9-2 (10 points). The two teams were evenly matched, and they showed that they were throughout the game on Wednesday night.
“You can see it’s two desperate teams,” Hedberg said of the contest. “They are [both] maybe searching to get on track. A lot of heart out there.”
Buffalo Sabres 5, New Jersey Devils 4
Jason Arnott currently leads the Devils in scoring. He added his fifth goal of the season at 10:12 in the first period. Assisting on the goal was the eighth rookie to make the Devils squad this season, Mattias Tedenby. In his first career NHL game, he was able to record his first NHL point on the first goal of the game.
Did anyone on the team get the puck for Tedenby’s first career NHL point?
“Of course they did,” Patrik Elias said after they game. “I’m not sure who, but somebody grabbed it for sure.”
Going into the second stanza, Jason Pominville finally got the Sabres on the scoreboard at 5:22…and then Derek Roy took the lead for Buffalo 13 seconds later.
Coach MacLean immediately called a timeout following Roy’s goal. If you think the coach wasn’t mad…think again. He was madder than he has ever been as head coach. From that timeout to the end of the game, he was hot under the collar…and it may have been just what the team needed.
“It was a good timeout by Johnny Mac,” Hedberg said. “Right after, I think it settled the troops down.”
With the coach yelling and mumbling profanities behind the bench, the players didn’t become dismayed or lose hope. They battled back. With rookie Alexander Vasyunov working the puck in deep, his shot towards the net hit David Clarkson’s skate, which redirected the puck into the net at 7:58, tying up the game.
At 11:44, Tyler Ennis hooked Captain America, Jamie Langenbrunner, dangerously into the boards in front of the Buffalo bench. It took the captain a moment to pick himself up from the ice, but he got up and skated back to the Devils bench. He headed back to the locker room for a few minutes before returning to the game.
During the power play on Ennis’ hooking penalty, Arnott ripped one in to take the lead at 12:01. But the lead didn’t last long as Tyler Myers tied the game at 13:50. But luckily for the Devils, Langenbrunner’s mishap at the Sabres bench led to another lead when he tallied one in at 18:40, ending the middle period 4-3 in favor of the Devils.
In the final period, Ennis was able to tie up the game once again with a goal at 8:54, forcing the game into overtime.
In the extra period, no goals were scored, which sent the game to the shootout.
Buffalo sent out Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Innis and Roy. The Devils sent out Arnott, Elias, Langenbrunner and Kovalchuk.
Vanek, the second shooter for the Sabres, was the first to score on Hedberg. Langenbrunner was able to keep the Devils alive when he scored on Enroth. But Roy, put the Sabres up another goal on the Sabres fourth try.
Unfortunately, the Devils decided to send out the only player that has historically been known to have very little success rate in the shootout. They sent out Kovalchuk.
As Kovalchuk’s shootout performance anxiety would have it…he lost the puck…fumbled it…before he could even make it to Enroth, thus awarding the 5-4 win to the Sabres in Ruff’s 1000th game.
“At the end, we came out short on the penalty shot,” Elias said of the game. “I don’t think it was that bad of a game.”
Kovalchuk In A Rut
All players at some point in their career develop difficulties generating goals or wins for their club. Kovalchuk is no exception. It’s just something they have to play through until they can rebuild their confidence. After they find their way again, watch out!
The Devils don’t fault Kovalchuk for their loss to the Sabres. The players have walked a mile in his shoes before. They understand what he’s going through. It will take some time, and they are right there to support him through those tough times.
One of the most important things for a captain to do is to acknowledge when one of his teammates needs advice or counseling. Langenbrunner has been right there, making sure Kovalchuk gets the mentoring he needs.
“[He said] keep working,” Kovalchuk said of the captain’s advice to him after he wasn’t able to score in the shootout.
“It’s unfortunate, obviously,” Langenbrunner said of Kovalchuk’s struggles. “He’s pressing and wanting to do something good.”
“You want him to get his confidence back there, score a goal, but obviously [he’s fighting it] a little bit. It’s unfortunate the way he got treated after it. I understand what it’s like out there. It’s too bad.”
“We can tell he’s trying out there. He wants to do well every shift, every night. It’s not happening for him. I feel bad for him. He’s such a guy that he wants everything to be ‘the guy’ and it’s just not happening. It’s unfortunate to get treated that way in the game.”
“Any great athlete [is] the hardest [on themselves] in their way of playing,” Hedberg said of Kovalchuk. “Some guys [have] just an excellent dynamic to their game. Sometimes it takes on an edge. You can tell that Kovy wants it so bad. He wants to help out so bad. He has a great heart. There’s not a lot of guys that cares more than he has.
“He will get there. Sometimes he’s pushing too hard, which is not the way. I’ve seen him get out of a slump too. He’ll get out of there.”
“He sure is pressing,” MacLean said. “He doesn’t want to be in that situation. He wants to score. He’s a prideful guy. He’s just going through a tough time. He’s got to hang with it. He’s going to come out of it.”
After all that Kovalchuk, the Devils and fans have been through this past summer,with his contract, there is pressure on Kovalchuk to perform at the level that is expected of him and it is likely inhibiting in his performance and keeping him from doing what comes naturally to him. Also add on the stress of having to step up and ‘save the team’ after numerous players have become injured, Kovalchuk is not in the right mindset to win…no matter how hard he tries.
Too much stress on his ability to perform can create a slump like the one he’s in now. After all, everyone knows how too much stress can cause problems.
But the truth of the matter is that the blame should not be put on Kovalchuk. This is a team. They are all in this together. It’s not a matter of depending on one person to score all of the goals…or to ‘save’ the team. There are 19 other guys on the roster that have that same ability to save the team…and all 20 of them can do it together.
This is not Kovalchuk’s team. This is the New Jersey Devils. The team is not depending on him to save them. They learned a long time ago that no matter who is the face of the franchise (Brodeur, Parise or Kovalchuk), they are not the ones that save the team. You take what you can get from every member of the squad, no matter who it comes from.
They also understand the meaning of a slump. It happens. If they’ve gotten through it before, Kovalchuk will get through it too.
“Overall, we’re all battling through this,” MacLean said. “It’s about our team too. He’s part of it. We’re all battling through this, so we all have to pick one another up.”