One of the self-assessments that came from the Buffalo Sabres following a disappointing 6-3 loss to Philadelphia on Tuesday night was that the players skated like they weren't ready to play. They struggled to move their feet and ultimately got outworked by an aggressive Flyers team.
It's no coincidence, then, that they returned from an off day on Wednesday with a practice that emphasized hard work at HarborCenter on Thursday morning. The hour-long session included up-and-down skating and 5-on-5 battle drills throughout.
"Bringing your work boots today, that was pretty much the message," forward Marcus Foligno said. "It was a good practice."
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The loss to Philadelphia was Buffalo's seventh in its last eight games. The Sabres were able to hang around the wild card race for much of that stretch, but that game made the climb steeper than ever: They sit seven points back with 15 games remaining.
Object No. 1, of course, is still to win as many games and make up as much ground in the standings as possible. But this final stretch of the season also stands as an opportunity for a young team to learn from its mistakes and take a step toward fully establishing the identity it's shown in spurts this season.
"I think with 15 games you should have no misunderstanding and you should have no questions about who the Buffalo Sabres are and how they play," coach Dan Bylsma said. "That's something we haven't gotten to. It's something that, with the 15 games that we are playing, we need to take as a challenge to establish."
So, what is the Sabres' identity? In spite of their most recent loss, the players say it actually does start with their work ethic.
"I think our identity is that we're a hardworking team," defenseman Cody Franson said. "We had a hiccup in the last few, but I think when teams think of playing Buffalo, you're going to have to work. We've got holes in our game like everybody else does. We're a work in progress more so than we should be right now."
"We're physical, we're quick, we're tenacious," Foligno said. "We're mostly in the offensive zone a lot. It's physical hockey. It's got to be fast hockey. It's a team that doesn't give up. I think we try to go right to the end. Obviously, we've had some slow starts, some bad periods. But it's got to be a full 60 from us. That's when we're at our best."
Buffalo's first chance to respond will come in a home-and-home set against the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team the Sabres have yet to meet this season. Still, Foligno has some familiarity with them. His brother, Nick, captains the Blue Jackets, and thus Marcus has a good idea of what's helped turn them from a team toward the bottom of the standings one year ago into one of the League's best this season.
"I definitely try to watch Nick as much as I can," he said. "That team, they work. It's easy to say. They're a 60-minute team. They play hard. They're smart."
In other words, the Blue Jackets bring their work boots. Once the Sabres can do the same for three whole periods game in and game out, they might take that next step too.
"That just goes to show you we're still in a learning process and we've got guys that need to mature," Foligno said. "We've got a lot of skill, a lot of work ethic on this team. It's just putting it together for 60 minutes, and that just comes down to maturity.
Eichel rebounds from misplay
After the game on Tuesday, Bylsma was particular in pointing out his displeasure with the manner in which Philadelphia earned its first goal. The play began with Jack Eichel attempting to carry the puck through three defenders in the neutral zone, creating a turnover that ended with the puck in Buffalo's net.
Eichel was benched for next few shifts after the misplay. The message from the coach wasn't for Eichel to avoid risks completely, but rather to pick his spots better.
"I implore Jack, he needs to have five turnovers a game," Bylsma said. "If he's not having a turnover, then he's not trying to do the right thing. There's a time and place and a situation for those attempts that was not one of them.
"Jack's a star player, no question. But he's a young player as well. He's got to learn that. That's a process we're going through. Did he miss a few shifts after that play? He did."
When Eichel did get back on the ice, he was Buffalo's most impactful player offensively. He scored two goals and had an assist, improving his career-best points streak to 11 games.
"I liked his response," Bylsma said. "He understood it. He understood why. I thought he played pretty inspired and passionate after that point."
9 Evander Kane - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 56 Justin Bailey
26 Matt Moulson - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
82 Marcus Foligno - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 12 Brian Gionta
44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 63 Tyler Ennis
29 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
41 Justin Falk - 47 Zach Bogosian
4 Josh Gorges - 6 Cody Franson
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson