NEWARK – The Buffalo Sabres have been focused on three-game segments all year and they'll enter the final three-game segment of the season this week.
They prepared for their contest against the New Jersey Devils scheduled for Tuesday night with a practice Monday afternoon at Prudential Center. Centers Jack Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly were given maintenance days and were absent from practice.
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma wouldn't specify, but said that he expects one of them to play Tuesday. A recall from Rochester may be necessary if the other is unable to go.
The Sabres have been able to fill holes in their lineup all year and despite some key players missing time, they've been able to play some good hockey. The team is currently without the services of 20-goal scorer Evander Kane, No. 1 goalie Robin Lehner, last year's leading scorer Tyler Ennis and Cody Franson, who has been expected to provide some offense from the blue line.
However, even with those players out, the Sabres are 6-2-2 in their past 10 games and are coming off back-to-back wins over Toronto and the Rangers. Only Pittsburgh has more points in that span with 18.
The final three-game stretch begins Tuesday against the Devils, continues at home on Friday when the Blue Jackets come to town for Fan Appreciation Night and concludes on Saturday in Brooklyn against the Islanders.
"Good teams win two out of three. Good teams get four points in six games. Good teams win on the road and that's what we're trying to do," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "That's what we're trying to do these last three games."
If Buffalo is able to pick up five points over its past three games, they can finish .500 with 82 points.
They've come a long way since starting the season 3-7-0.
"I maybe underestimated the distance we had to travel to get to that mentality where we thought we could win games whether we're on the road in a tough place to play, whether we're playing a tough opponent where we know we can go out and win a hockey game," Bylsma said.
"I think we feel that's the case now. I think we've got that in our team, we've got that in our mentality. We see it with different guys leaving our lineup."
After last-place finishes the past two seasons, the opportunity to hit that .500 mark is on their minds.
"It's a big change. The core of the team is looking really good. We try to build a team to win a championship and I think it's going in the right direction," Nicolas Deslauriers said. "Obviously it's sad to see we didn't make the playoffs, but we're progressing the right way. We need to come back next year and be way better."
For players like Deslauriers and Marcus Foligno, who have been through those rough patches, there's a lot at stake in these final three games.
"We want to go out and win these games. For myself, I've been here for awhile and it's nice to see it turning. You can really see it now," Marcus Foligno, who has set career highs with 10 goals and 23 points so far this season, said. "We're competing. We're a hockey club that next year is going to be a really good hockey club and definitely will hopefully have more points than 85 – that we're around 95 next year. But it all starts now."
Buffalo is 17-17-5 on the road this year, but Bylsma thinks that, had they held onto leads in some games or if things had things gone their way in others, that record could be much better. Bylsma has made it a point of emphasis that his team goes out with the same style regardless of where they're playing or who the opponent may be.
Lately, the Sabres have been able to execute. Their win against the Rangers on Saturday was their first in 10 tries against New York and it came at Madison Square Garden.
"I think it plays to the mentality of our team. We've shown we're going to be a relentless team, a team that keeps working, keeps playing regardless of the situation. And it shows when we get down in a game as well. We are willing to keep fighting, keep battling and keep playing."
Pregame coverage Tuesday night begins at 6:30 p.m. on MSG and Bell TV. The match against the Devils can also be heard live on WGR 550.