Ralph Krueger speaks often about the importance of processing pain. In the aftermath of losses, his comments are typically geared toward finding solutions out of disappointment.
Tuesday's 6-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning may have been the Sabres' most painful of the season. They led 4-1 in the second period, capped by a thrilling shorthanded goal from Jack Eichel, then allowed five unanswered goals to drop their fourth game in a row.
Rather than get lost in the details of that game, Krueger utilized Wednesday morning to reflect on the big picture with his players. They assessed where they stand after 41 games and looked ahead to the opportunities of the second half.
"The pain needs to remain and we shouldn't [gloss] it over, but what we need to do is concentrate on the process again," Krueger said. "We know we're in a group phase of learning and growing and the group in there is coming out fighting this morning.
"The coaches are fighting, the players are fighting, and we'd like to show the crowd here - who were unbelievable in my first half of my first season here in Buffalo - we want to give them that as a New Year's gift tomorrow against Edmonton. We want them to see the fight and the reaction. So, that's kind of the feeling here this morning, quite honestly. We went big picture to get some sanity out of the pain yesterday. Again, there are good things we need to grab onto and get right back at it tomorrow."
So, where do the Sabres stand at the midway point? They sit five points out of third place in the Atlantic Division, currently occupied by Tampa Bay. Yet Krueger has seen developments in players' understanding of the identity they're trying to build.
Even during their 8-1-1 start - which was fueled heavily by a red-hot power play - Krueger says players were still grasping their roles within the team's principles. The switch flipped somewhere around their loss in Boston on Nov. 21, a game they controlled in every sense except the score sheet.
Around that time, players began calling out their own mistakes in the meeting rooms and on the bench. Their understanding of the principles showed in the results; they earned points in 10 of 12 games following the loss in Boston.
It's still there, Krueger said, even in their current stretch of six losses in seven games. The difference is the consistency during what's been a rigorous schedule of 21 contests in 39 days before Christmas.
"What's happening is the mental fatigue of sustaining those habits over and over and over again for 60 minutes, it's still not there," Krueger said. "It's still not there. We still don't have the mental wherewithal to stick with those habits.
"As soon as we are plus-35 seconds in a shift, as soon as we're four games in seven days and it's tough time, we have individual breakdowns still in those situations. … So, that's the next phase of habits becoming the norm."
The stretch ahead is less daunting. The Sabres only play 10 games in January, with no back-to-backs plus a bye week toward the end of the month. They play six times at home, where they're 11-5-3.
Krueger said the reaction from his players on Wednesday and the habits he's seen develop have him excited for the opportunity ahead. He also acknowledges that it's results, not behind-the-scenes improvement, that will persuade fans to share that optimism.
"It's nothing for our fans to be excited about," he said. "What they need to be excited about is that these guys are working on this and that these habits are becoming something we believe in as a group and that Sabres hockey is going to have an identity. We are building an identity here. We are going to show our identity even still this season. It's going to come out more and more consistently, I am sure."
Rodrigues addresses TSN report
TSN's Darren Dreger reported Tuesday that forward Evan Rodrigues "made his interests in a trade known" to Sabres management.
Rodrigues, who was scratched for the game against Tampa Bay, met with the media Wednesday and acknowledged disappointment with his role. He's averaged 10:42 and tallied three assists in 24 appearances after playing a career-high 74 games last season.
"I'm a hockey player who wants to play hockey," he said. "I think that pretty much anyone out there will tell you the same thing. It's a job, it's a career. I just want to play hockey."
Asked if he was disappointed with the report, Krueger said, "I can only speak to what is, and what is is we will end up with a group of players who really want to be here. We will work with the players who really want to be here and, quite clearly, play the players who really want to be here."
The Sabres host Edmonton on Thursday. Coverage on MSG begins at 6:30 p.m.