Kovacevic: Giveaways gifted with a Buffalo bow


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The Sabres' Zemgus Girgensons skates away from Justin Schultz for a breakaway Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

I just ... I mean, six months to rip up the plate, to restate the priorities, to refocus toward a positive future ... and these guys come out and concoct a Game 5 of the Islanders series?

Yeah, best to leave this one to the maestro.

• Me, I'm stuck on the giveaways.

For the record, it isn't easy to be charged with an official giveaway anywhere in the NHL, and it's no different with PPG Paints Arena's chief scorer, Phil Spano, and his staff. They religiously follow the standard that a player committing an official giveaway has to be guilty of a wholly unforced error, to borrow the tennis term.

Really, it's got to be trash like this ...

... from Jack Johnson in the second period of the Penguins' 3-1 loss to the Sabres on this most pungent of season-opening stinkers Thursday night.

There'd be 17 in all.

The average committed by a team in a game is a half-dozen, and it's not uncommon to see the figure as low as three or four.


And no, although I spotlighted him up there, Johnson was far from some isolated culprit. Kris Letang had a game-high four giveaways, including this blind backhander into his own slot, for crying out loud ...

... that led to a bunch of Buffalo chances, a power play and, ultimately, Conor Sheary's second goal.

Letang's top-pairing partner, Brian Dumoulin, whose own performance wasn't any prettier, had two giveaways. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin also had two each. In fact, 12 of the 18 skaters had at least one, including every defenseman except Marcus Pettersson.

Naturally, then, the two players I approached afterward were those at both extremes.

With the same monosyllabic question: How?

"I mean, I think they came out hard at us," Letang responded, referring to the Sabres. And he's right that they did. "They came out fast. They were better than us. They were more hungry than us. I think it's just a question of wanting it more. The league is young and fast, so we have to expect that every night."

OK, but ... six months for this?

"There's always some nerves. You're in front of your home crowd and you want to do good. But they came out hard at us in the first 10 minutes. I thought we did a good job after that, in the second half of the first period."

OK, but ...

"Well, look, I think we have to get into the rhythm of holding pucks and making sure we're staying more poised. But it's going to come. I just think the intensity and the will has to be there."

Pettersson saw it no differently.

"We've got to look at what we can do better, especially with all the stuff they were trying to do to get behind us," he'd tell me. "But really, I felt like they were just at a whole other level from the exhibition season, and we were ..."

Still stuck there?

"Well, yeah, it's as simple as that."

Maybe it is. Maybe the calendar didn't flip from September to October, and maybe that'll occur before the next game, Saturday night against the Blue Jackets.

But man, that's no excuse. For any of it.

• No one looks worse on a night like this than the head coach. And don't think Mike Sullivan didn't know that upon eventually walking into the press conference room nearly a half-hour after the final horn, undoubtedly because there'd been paint to peel elsewhere in the building.

"We just weren’t good enough," Sullivan would say at the podium. "That’s what I told our guys after the game, that I know we’re capable of being better. We just weren’t good enough in a lot of areas."

Some will panic. Such is the nature of sports and fandom. This is a good coach. His team laid an egg of epic proportions. As I wrote in my season-preview column, this opening four-game homestand offers an opportunity to play up to his standard without any of the adverse elements of the road. There are still three more of those.

• Speaking of the column -- and sorry in advance if this comes across as self-congratulatory in the slightest -- but I listed 10 specific questions/concerns about 2019-20, and I'd be lying if I wasn't cringing that no fewer than a half-dozen of them instantly looked very real:

✓ Odd-man breaks?
✓ Coaching adjustments to same?
✓ Enough energy added?
✓ Mobility on defense?
✓ Can Crosby carry the load?
Patric Hornqvist's age?

The odd-man breaks were endless, including three completely clean breakaways and several other partial breaks or one-on-ones against Matt Murray. The coaching adjustments, at least visibly, were negligible. The only player who invested appropriate energy from front to finish was the one player I'd predicted, that being Brandon Tanev. The defense looked sluggish and sloppy. Crosby and Jake Guentzel achieved next to nothing five-on-five. And Hornqvist, after starting out on their right wing, was betrayed by speed and didn't fit at all.


• Loved Tanev, though. And the whole second line. He, Malkin and Alex Galchenyuk represented one of the evening's two bright spots.

• The other was Matt Murray, stopping 38 of Buffalo's 41 shots in a setting where the Sabres would wind up with a ridiculous 15 of the game's 18 high-danger scoring chances.

Murray isn't big on discussing non-goaltending things after a loss, but I gave it a shot, anyway:

Suffice it to say, Sullivan had this right when asked about Murray: “He was our best player. He made a lot of timely saves for us. He kept the game close, we have to be better in front of him.”

• I had no issue with Johnson starting, but I definitely did with how it happened: He'd looked like the odd-man out for nearly a week in practice and, suddenly, he's thrust into duty alongside Justin Schultz, which didn't work, then with Erik Gudbranson, which really didn't work. He'd wind up with a game-low Corsi For percentage of 31.25, as he was on the ice for an incredible 22 Buffalo chances in just 14:06 of ice time.

So maybe Johnson either should've been paired and prepared properly, or maybe he shouldn't have played it all. But this way messed with everyone except the Letang and Dumoulin.

Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo's superb young defenseman, scored a beauty for his team's third goal ...

... but it was helped along by a Dumoulin pinch, Letang getting torched by the kid, and Teddy Blueger and Zach Aston-Reese seemingly not realizing they're fringe NHL players who can't -- and shouldn't -- get away with that kind of effort on the backcheck.

This is what I meant when expressing regret that Adam Johnson and other young forwards aren't around to apply pressure. Because if these two think their jobs are secure, then something's really wrong.

• Upon trading for Dominik Kahun over the offseason, some officials with the Penguins compared him -- cautiously, respectfully -- to Sheary. The biggest difference I noticed in this one was that I can vividly recall Sheary participating. The next thing I see from Kahun in any context will be the first.

• Both teams play on the same ice with the same puck, but wow, was the ice bad and the puck bouncy. I get that it was 78 degrees outside at faceoff, but the home facility's got to do better by the core product.

• The Sabres haven't made the playoffs eight summers in a row, and I'm not sure they will in 2020, either. But witnessing the continuing emergence of Dahlin, in particular ... my goodness, what a rush and what a finish ... there's hope in Buffalo for the first time in forever. All that's missing: Jack Eichel's breakout to another level. He's 22. He's always talked a big game, and no one could sneeze at his 82 points last season, but superstar means superstar. And he was the prospect, remember, that at least a few placed in the same class as Connor McDavid.

• There really is another of these Saturday, barring the big meteor strike. But given how things have played out in local sports of late, I'm not betting against the meteor.


[caption id="attachment_897908" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Penguins vs. Sabres, PPG Paints Arena, Oct. 3, 2019 -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

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