Sabres' D rough

AL STRACHAN

, Last Updated: 8:48 AM ET

RALEIGH -- After a lacklustre performance by his team and a subsequent 4-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday, Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff was downright combatant when suggestions were made that his makeshift defence was less than flawless.

"If you are looking there, you are looking in the wrong place," he said repeatedly and with increasing intensity.

TYPICAL

It's a typical coaching ploy, at least among the better coaches -- keeping in mind that coaches are not hired for their honesty.

Ruff is a good enough coach to know that if you give players an excuse, they'll take it. Not every coach knows that. Some, for instance, spend most of the game -- and much of the post-game press conference -- berating the officiating.

They then wonder why their players found a way to lose. Why wouldn't they? There's always the officiating to blame.

But Ruff knows he's in deep here. From a personal point of view, he could use the excuse of the general manager who, in concert with the billionaire owner, decided to follow the cheapest possible path at trading-deadline time and didn't bother to shore up the defence.

But that approach wouldn't help now. Nor would the approach of blaming Jeff Jillson, Rory Fitzpatrick and Doug Janik, all of whom would be watching from the press box were it not for injuries to Teppo Numminen, Dmitri Kalinin and Henrik Tallinder.

Fitzpatrick is a gamer, but he's slow. It's no accident that when the 'Canes are breaking out and he's on the ice, they head for his side of the rink.

As for Jillson and Janik, they spent the season in the minors. There's a reason for that.

On the critical opening goal on Friday, it was Jillson who got bumped off the puck by Matt Cullen to start the play. Jillson, who has been cast adrift by both the San Jose Sharks and Boston Bruins, was on the ice for three of the four Carolina goals.

On the third goal, Janik didn't keep pace with Doug Weight and, with Jillson out of position, Andrew Ladd slammed home the rebound of Weight's shot.

This is not to suggest the replacement defencemen were the only reason Buffalo lost. The Sabres power play did nothing. Their European forwards couldn't be found with a microscope, and the few chances that were created were squandered.

Also, the Hurricanes, led by prodigal goalie Martin Gerber, played an outstanding game.

But the fact remains that the absence of three starting defencemen has to take its toll on the Sabres.

The forwards aren't as confident that their backs are covered when they head to the attack. The whole team spends more time under siege in its own end because the calm, controlled outlet passes don't materialize. Battles for the puck are lost.

It's even as simple as negating a play by being in the right place. If a defenceman is standing beside an opponent, then the guy with the puck has to hold on to it and expose himself to a check. But if the defenceman is off wandering around somewhere, the attack gets rolling.

But Ruff knows absolutely nothing can be gained by suggesting the replacement defencemen are flawed.

CONFIDENCE

Although Numminen may be back tonight, Tallinder and Kalinin are gone long-term, so he might as well try and boost the confidence of whoever is going to be filling in.

He knows that if he is critical of the offence -- which he was -- there is the potential for a rebound.

He did it after Game 2 and the forwards, led by Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, came through in Game 3.

But if Ruff criticizes this team's already fragile defence, all he can do is make matters worse.

Then again, there already is a strong suspicion in Buffalo that it doesn't matter.

The Sabres are in trouble either way.


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