After 41 games, Head Coach Lindy Ruff has an idea of how he would like the second half of the season to turn out;
“As they say in the sailing business, steady as she goes,” he laughed.
At the midseason mark the Buffalo Sabres are leading the Northeast Division, seven points ahead of Boston with a 26-11-4 record, and currently sit in second place of the Eastern Conference.
As a team that last season was on the outside of the playoff picture looking in at this point in the year, accountability was the buzzword as the squad struggled to find a cohesive identity. But this year, things have changed for Buffalo. And rather than abandon what they created, the team merely adjusted its attitude and, in turn, has found success.
“I think we were confident coming into this year, even though we didn’t change a lot of names on the roster,” defenseman Chris Butler said. “I think guys in this room felt like they had something to prove this year… myself included.”
“There’s a different feel in the dressing room,” Adam Mair agreed. “There’s a feel of almost a quiet confidence. It’s just not getting too high or too low after any game. It’s maintaining an even keel throughout the season and coming to work every day and enjoying it. The best way to do that is by winning.”
That mentality of staying balanced, win or lose, has kept the Sabres on track. Beginning the season with an 8-2-1 record through the month of October, the team has failed to drop off as they have in the past. In fact, with the exception of a four-game slump in November, the Sabres have only lost back-to-back games on three occasions this season.
What’s more, they also lead the league with just a single one-goal loss, and are 13-1-4 overall in one-goal games this season.
“We’ve been able to close the deal, which is a little bit different,” Ruff said. “I think that’s the thing I’ve been most impressed with. We’ve been smart, we’ve been a very diligent team in a lot of situations where we haven’t given up the opportunities, really what I would call the ‘beat yourself’. That has been a big difference.”
That ability to rebound was manifested last week when the Sabres made franchise history by coming back to win from a two consecutive three-goal deficits. Buffalo fell behind 3-0 to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Atlanta Thrashers, respectively, and came back both times to win 4-3. The last NHL team to accomplish the feat was the Dallas Stars in January 2006.
“I think everyone has done a good job of looking in the mirror and realizing that we’re not going to hide this year,” Butler said. “Everyone has a role and if you’re not doing your job you’ve got to do something about it to be better. I think that accountability factor has finally come into play this year.”
It hasn’t been perfect. The team has struggled on the power play, capitalizing on 16 percent of its chances with the man advantage, and have consistently been looking for their top two lines to break through. Thomas Vanek
has only registered 11 goals through the first 41 games of the year after exploding for 40 in the 2008-09 season. Players like Derek Roy
and Jason Pominville
have also experienced scoring droughts.
“We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the top six,” Ruff said regarding areas needing improvement. “Tim Connolly’s got himself on a nice little roll. It’s getting those five, six players on a continuous role for us.... I think scoring has been going down a little bit which makes it even tougher.”
“Everybody just has more of a role,” Pominville said of the team’s scoring. “Everyone is playing more minutes and the ice time is more spread out. It’s definitely helped us with the schedule we have right now and everyone is chipping in offensively.
“Last year it was a grind to the end. Now that we are where we want to be, teams are gunning for us and want to catch us. We’ve got to keep working and be ready to play, because they are definitely going to be ready for us.”