For a team coming off of a disappointing loss to the San Jose Sharks on Saturday afternoon, practice for the Buffalo Sabres was noticeably loose on Sunday morning. According to coach Phil Housley, that was by design.
Housley has ample opportunity to work with the team at practice in the four days that separate the Sabres from their game in Arizona on Thursday. With that in mind, the coach used Sunday as an opportunity to rest some players and try to reset the mood of the team.
Buffalo's 12 games this season are tied for the most in the NHL.
"Today was just coming after it from a different angle," Housley said. "Just have a good practice, get some exercise out there, but we've got to make it fun for these guys as well because they have been grinding."
Video: HOUSLEY: After Practice
Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane, Marco Scandella, Rasmus Ristolainen and Robin Lehner were all given maintenance days. Ristolainen's average ice time of 27:23 leads the NHL, while Scandella, O'Reilly and Kane rank second, fourth and fifth on the team in ice time (Jack Eichel, who did practice, ranks third).
The absence of Lehner made for a fun breakaway drill at the end, with Ryan Vinz filling in as the practice goalie (more on him here).
"I think today was just meant to be a little bit more of a fun day, just do some skill stuff," alternate captain Kyle Okposo said. "Just to kind of keep it light. It's not easy when you're not winning games, it can be a drag coming to the rink and it's going to be a long year if that happens.
"But you've got to try to find ways to stay positive. That's what's going to turn this around, is guys not playing form a place of frustration or negativity. You have to play knowing you're going to get out of it."
At the same time, Okposo stressed the importance of using their next couple of days to reflect on where they need to improve. The Sabres were happy with the way they competed in their loss to San Jose, a game they could have won had they buried their chances. The next step is for strong efforts to translate into wins.
"I think that good teams, they just do it all the time," he said. "They're able to get those results. We've got to figure out a way to turn it around to where we're not saying, 'Oh, we worked hard' and look at the positives. We lost a game and we've got to start finding ways to win."
Housley thought the team had a good practice on Friday, and said it carried over to the strong effort against the Sharks. It's a correlation the coach has noticed throughout the season, and an effect the Sabres will look to replicate heading into their matchup with Arizona.
"Our practices have a lot of meaning because we're trying to dig ourselves out of a hole and trying to work on areas of our game where we have to improve," Housley said. "I think overall our compete has to rise a little bit in practice because that's where it starts … It just seems that when we've had had really good practices and paid attention to details, it's gone into games where we've had success."
The Sabres will have the day off Monday, and then return to practice Tuesday and Wednesday.