New coach, old problems for Sabres

TORONTO -- The doors to the visiting dressing room were closed for a bit.

Despite a coaching change that hit players like a sledgehammer -- Lindy Ruff sent packing after 16 years -- it was yet another loss for the Buffalo Sabres, one which prompted a players-only meeting.

"We talked as a group," Sabres captain Jason Pominville said after a 3-1 loss Thursday night to the Toronto Maple Leafs. "We had different voices speak up about what needs to be better."

I don't cover the Sabres for a living, but I know a fragile team when I see one. The slumped shoulders on the bench were easily noticeable after the Leafs went up 2-1 late in the second period, as James Van Riemsdyk's goal at 18:04 stood up as the game winner.

Inside the Sabres' room afterward, there were long faces staring into space. Tyler Ennis, his face buried in his hands, got a sympathetic hug from Sabres alternate governor Clifford Benson.

I don't think you can argue these guys don't care.

"The effort is there,'' Pominville said. "We're working hard, we're competing hard. But it's those mental mistakes we're making that are costing us."

A strong opening period where the Sabres outshot Toronto 13-10 and took a 1-0 lead on Ennis' goal gave interim head coach Ron Rolston the start he was looking for.

But it fell apart in the second period. Buffalo was outshot 15-6, outscored 2-0, and reverted back to its shaky ways with too many turnovers.

"Second period wasn't good enough," said star goalie Ryan Miller, who was terrific in the loss, stopping 29 shots and some of them gems. "We didn't do the things we talked about in the second."

When pressed to explain why his team falls apart, like it did in the second period, Miller clearly was trying to prevent another rant like he had last Sunday after a loss to Pittsburgh, yet at the same time he was honest.

"Guys have to execute," Miller told the large media scrum. "It's brought up, it's mentioned, it's highlighted. You got me. I'm trying not to get caught up in it too much. I'm trying just to do my job. But you ask me a question about the game and that's my evaluation."

The challenge for Rolston, from my vantage point, is twofold. Half the battle will be to rehabilitate the psyche of a team that has lost almost all confidence in itself. And technically, he has to fine-tune a system that isn't working. Rolston said after the game that he's hoping to see the Sabres play more of a north-south game, which hopefully will put more pressure on opposing defenses and create more turnovers for the Sabres.

Early in Thursday's game, you could see a bit of that, especially from the top line of Pominville, Cody Hodgson and Thomas Vanek.

"Our line early on had some great looks, it could have been a difference, didn't find a way to put them in," Pominville said.

Leafs goalie Ben Scrivens stoned Vanek twice on the same shift.

But let's be honest. Rolston hasn't even had a full practice yet with his new team. A morning skate on game day doesn't accomplish much. And the real test for Rolston is to find enough time in a compacted schedule with teams playing almost every second night to actually instill enough change.

"He has new ideas, new things that he wants to bring to us, but he hasn't really had time yet to even work on most of it," Pominville said. "We had one morning skate. We tried to learn mostly on video a few things he wants to change."

Miller said the new coach has some interesting ideas, but it comes down to the same old thing: "It's up to the players. We're moving forward. Ron has a nice style about him. I like the way he thinks the game. He's laid out a few things for us. But the NHL game is not that different. You have to do things a certain way or you are going to open yourself up. And unless you're going to run and gun and put some goals up, you're going to find yourself in the situation we're in."

In an interview with ESPN.com earlier in the day, Miller talked about his team struggling to find an identity over the past few years.

After Thursday night's loss, he laid that out clear and simple. The Sabres, Miller feels, have to decide which kind of team they want to be and stick to it.

"We're caught in between," Miller said. "You either have to gun it a little bit and score some more or you have to lock it down. You can't be an in-between team in the NHL."

Right now, they're just a down-and-out team.