The Buffalo Sabres have 33 games remaining with 10 points separating them from both third place in the Atlantic Division and the second wild card in the Eastern Conference. They play nine of their next 10 games at home, beginning against the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday.
It's a prime opportunity to re-enter the playoff picture. With two practices now under their belt following a week off, Ralph Krueger likes his team's mindset.
"There's going to be some good battles ahead," Krueger said. "This group looks battle ready to be and feels battle ready and you can feel a freshness that's channeled down the right path right now, so may we turn that into some good hockey here."
The Sabres are 14-5-3 at KeyBank Center this season. They made it an early goal to establish their home rink as a difficult place to play, something they feel they've accomplished to date.
"I have to say that what we feel is a real comfort here playing in front of our home crowd and playing in our building," Krueger said. "We made it a goal this year to make it a difficult place to play in and we believe it is that and we need to feed on that and make sure we don't get comfortable being at home, either.
"Sometimes flipflopping between road and home games makes it more fun to be at home. You should never take it for granted to be in front of your home crowd and we will not do it during this stretch. It is an opportunity that we all know will decide which direction this season goes, and we need to jump and be an outstanding home team here for the next few weeks."
Video: Monday's practice report
Though the upcoming stretch of home games represents a chance to make up ground, the Sabres are aware of the need to improve their road record to remain in contention. Krueger pointed to increases in opponents' levels of play and decreased results on special teams as possible reasons for their 8-14-4 mark away from home.
That said, the coach liked the way his team handled its road contests leading up to the break. They lost, 2-1, in Nashville on Dec. 18, but won in Detroit and Dallas as part of a three-game winning streak.
The outlook moving forward, he said, remains the same as it has been all season: Keep the picture small and focus on the day at hand.
"We're working in very small pictures of development here and we are pushing each other to continue the growth every day and not to do anything other than take care of what we need to take care of," Krueger said.
"We know there's some business ahead, everyone's clear about that. We speak openly about it. But as soon as the path ahead and the challenge of it is clear, we get back to a small picture. That's what we're going to do right now, is keep it small, keep pushing each other to improve, keep cementing the type of hockey we need to play to be competitive and to be a top team in this league. We all knew it wouldn't happen overnight, but we want to fight for that here every day."
Video: AFTER PRACTICE: Ralph Krueger
Jeff Skinner skated for the second day in a row and will play against the Senators on Tuesday, Krueger announced. The coach also offered an update on forward Victor Olofsson, who has been out since Jan. 2 with a lower-body injury.
"We still need to give it a couple weeks, probably, but he's progressing in a really good way," he said. "So, every step's been positive, but we're definitely not going to rush the situation."
Here's how the team lined up:
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 9 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
53 Jeff Skinner - 90 Marcus Johansson - 67 Michael Frolik
43 Conor Sheary - 22 Johan Larsson - 71 Evan Rodrigues
13 Jimmy Vesey - 27 Curtis Lazar - 21 Kyle Okposo
24 Lawrence Pilut - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
26 Rasmus Dahlin - 62 Brandon Montour
33 Colin Miller - 10 Henri Jokiharju
19 Jake McCabe - 4 Zach Bogosian
35 Linus Ullmark
40 Carter Hutton