Focus falls on Sabres coach Don Granato after Buffalo is embarrassed in 9-4 loss to Columbus

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Buffalo Sabres coach Don Granato looks up during the third period of the team's NHL hockey game against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The highlight for the Buffalo Sabres came 30 seconds in, when a festive but small holiday crowd rose to its feet to cheer defenseman Rasmus Dahlin for scoring the opening goal.

Some two hours later, the few who remained were left chanting “Fire Donnie,” in reference to Sabres coach Don Granato following a 9-4 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night.

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In a season already filled with low points before Christmas’ arrival, the floundering Sabres reached a new depth. A team that’s won consecutive games just once this year, and sits 14th in the Eastern Conference standings, gave up seven consecutive goals in 21 minutes and 52 seconds, spanning the first and second periods to the East’s 15th-place team.

“It’s an unforgiving league. If you are off at all, it is gonna get shoved down your throat really hard and that’s exactly what happened tonight,” captain Kyle Okposo said. “That’s on everybody in this room. Everybody. Probably myself more, and I’ll take the blame for not having the group ready. Put it all on me. That’s fine. I’ll take that.”

The frustrations are boiling over because this season was supposed to be different. Okposo opened training camp proclaiming the Sabres had no more excuses for missing the playoffs after a young, developing group fell two points short last year.

Instead, a Sabres roster that returned mostly intact, while remaining the league’s youngest, is having difficulty providing answers for what’s gone wrong. At 13-17-3, Buffalo is already in jeopardy of extending its NHL-record postseason drought to a 13th year.

“If I knew the answer, it wouldn’t be happening,” forward Tage Thompson said. “It’s actions. We can say all the things we want to say in the locker room, we got to go out and do it. It’s as simple as that.”

Nothing has come simply for the Sabres, who have dealt with a rash of injuries, an inconsistent trio of goalies and a slow-starting offense that is 3-15-2 when allowing the first goal.

The focus of blame is now falling on Granato, who is in his third full season behind the bench. After Granato was credited for developing Thompson and Dahlin, among others, into NHL stars, and instilling a mantra of his team playing without fear of making mistakes, the Sabres have suddenly hit a wall.

“Let’s just stick to tonight,” Granato said, a familiar refrain from a coach who is more focused on dealing with immediate issues rather than the big picture.

“It wasn’t good enough. We know that. And we’ll go right to work tomorrow,” he added. “We were off and and we have to own that. And we do. And it has to make us better.”

The trouble is, the Sabres have shown more signs of regression than growth this year. The power-play unit, once their strength, entered Tuesday ranking 27th in the NHL in converting just 12 of 90 chances. Buffalo’s playmaking defensemen are more liable to turn over the puck than join the rush.

And Devon Levi, the rookie goalie who wowed Buffalo with a 5-2 record in closing last season after completing his junior college season at Northeastern, dropped to 6-5-2 this year, has already spent a stint in the minors, and was yanked after allowing four goals on 18 shots against Columbus.

Granato maintains the backing of general manager Kevyn Adams, but for how long in a league where Edmonton, Minnesota, St. Louis and most recently Ottawa have already made coaching changes? Adams, meantime, is being second-guessed for over-valuing his young talent and being slow to shake up a roster that needs a spark.

The players say they have Granato’s back.

“Listen, I’m not gonna sit here and bash the coaches,” Okposo said. “I’m not gonna talk about us quitting. I’m not gonna talk about Donnie and us not listening. That’s not right. Donnie has our full support. We are gonna play hard for Donnie and that’s it.”

For Granato, it’s back to work on Wednesday, with the Toronto Maple Leafs hitting town on Thursday before the NHL enters its Christmas break.

“My concern is on making this group better tomorrow. It was my concern from Day 1, and it’ll stay my concern. We are going to make this team better. And I say it with absolute respect for our fan base,” Granato said. “I’m confident we will resolve this.”



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