For two days, the Buffalo Sabres have searched for answers. Their top offensive players have been smothered in the first three games of the Stanley Cup finals and entering Game 4 on Tuesday night, the Sabres are almost in a must-win situation, trailing the Dallas Stars in the best-of-seven series, 2-1. A loss would put Buffalo in position of needing to win three consecutive games, two in Dallas.
Buffalo's top two lines have combined for just one goal, a power-play goal by center Michael Peca in Game 2. Right wing Miroslav Satan, who led the Sabres with 40 goals during the regular season, has just one shot on goal in the series. Of Buffalo's six goals in the series, three were on the power play, two came with an extra skater on during a delayed penalty and only one was at even strength. Buffalo's lack of offensive production from its forwards has left defensemen Jason Woolley and Alexei Zhitnik as the team's leading scorers in the playoffs.
"If we are going to win this series," Sabres Coach Lindy Ruff said, "we need our big players to do something for us."
While the Sabres say they are not totally desperate, they will make changes for Game 4. Joe Juneau, acquired at the trading deadline from the Washington Capitals, likely will move on to Satan's line at right wing with center Curtis Brown in an attempt to give Satan a spark. The Sabres also called up three players from their American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester (which was just eliminated from the playoffs), including veteran left wing Randy Cunneyworth who likely will play Tuesday. Cunneyworth, 38, has seven goals in 42 career NHL playoff games; he had three goals and 14 assists in 20 playoff games with the Americans this spring.
"He has been their best player in the playoffs and [he] is a veteran guy that can play in any situation," Ruff said. "And Randy played for us during the year and did a very good job for us."
Dallas likely will make some lineup changes as well. Right wing Brett Hull still has a sore groin muscle and is doubtful for Game 4, according to Stars Coach Ken Hitchcock. There is some thought that Dallas will move defenseman Daryl Sydor into Hull's place, and Hitchcock said it is possible that left wing Benoit Hogue, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on May 24, could play.
"I think that a part of this team that people underestimate is the depth," Hull said, "and the ability of a lot of these players to adapt to positions and situations."
Indeed, despite injuries to key players -- including the broken wrist that Mike Modano has played in spite of -- the Stars have found heroes in the past two games, particularly center Joe Nieuwendyk, who scored both goals in a 2-1 victory in Game 3 on Saturday. But the Sabres have struggled to find a solution to the Stars' stifling defense; Buffalo tied a finals record with just 12 shots on goal in Game 3.
"Obviously it has been frustrating for all of us," Satan said.
Hitchcock said that stopping Satan and Brown was part of the Stars' plan entering the series. Dallas has tried to play physical defensemen Derian Hatcher and Richard Matvichuk opposite their line. Even when Ruff changed his lines and double-shifted Satan in Game 3, it had no effect.
"I thought the added ice time might get him going," Ruff said. "Obviously we need him . . . and the added ice time didn't result in a big plus for us. I tried to get him away from a couple of their matchups [and] tried to get him away from a couple of their defensive pairs, but didn't get a lot out of it."
Ruff also said that he wants his team to be more aggressive. With standout goalie Dominik Hasek playing well, Ruff said he thinks the Sabres can take more chances in the offensive end. Ruff also said he wants to use shorter shifts and get fresher players on the ice.
"For some reason our defense didn't want to get involved [offensively] the other night," Ruff said. "It wasn't the game plan to have them pull out. Our success in the first three rounds was because we pinched, because we had five players involved and typically we didn't give up a lot even though we played like that. We are going to try to get back to that. We are going to harp on it."
Said Brown: "It is plain as day: if we go out and win, we're in good shape; or if we go out and play like we did the other night, we're in tough shape. It's the biggest game of our lives."