TORONTO – Ron Rolston will have to wait for his first victory behind an NHL bench.
The new Sabres coach lost his first outing with Buffalo on Thursday as his team dropped a 3-1 decision to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But Rolston—who replaced long-time Sabres Lindy Ruff after he was fired on Wednesday—tried to put a positive spin on Buffalo’s performance at Air Canada Centre.
“I liked a lot of things we did tonight,” said Rolston, who was coaching Buffalo’s American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester when the axe fell on Ruff. “We improved in some areas that we talked about. We just need to go back at it and get better.”
Rolston said he took a few moments to soak up the scene before his first NHL contest.
“It was a great feeling, walking down the hallway and out behind the bench for the first time,” he said. “This is a spectacular building, there was great atmosphere, and being out there for the anthems was a special feeling. It was a thrill.”
That feeling of excitement will quickly fade if Buffalo continues its tailspin. The Sabres dropped to 6-11-1 on the season and have lost three straight games and five of their past six, a skid that cost Ruff—the NHL’s longest-tenured coach—his job after nearly 16 years with the franchise.
Buffalo has sunk to 14th place in the Eastern Conference and needs to turn things around quickly.
“Most importantly, we need to generate more shots, more scoring chances,” Rolston said. “We’ve got to shoot and get more traffic in front. We’ve got the guys back there (on defence) who can really shoot it and if we can establish that, it should really open things up for us.”
The Sabres ranked 17th in the NHL in goals per game (2.6) and 26th in goals against (3.3). Special teams have also been a problem for Buffalo, which ranks second last in the league on the power play (12.3-per cent efficiency) and 20th on the penalty kill (79.4 per cent).
There is work to do, but the Sabres players appear ready to listen to a new coach for the first time since 1997.
“It was a different voice, obviously,” said Thomas Vanek, who’s tied for the NHL lead in goals (12) and points (25) and has been one of Buffalo’s few bright spots this season. “He talked a lot behind the bench, it was fine. He tried to teach us a few things during the game.”
And while they’re ready to respond to Rolston, some Sabres admitted the situation felt a little strange at first.
“It was weird,” said Buffalo captain Jason Pominville. “Lindy’s been the leader of this organization for 16 years. It’s definitely something we have to get used to. Nothing against Ron, it’s just a little weird to have a new voice back there.”