Gettin’ outta Dodge. Go South, young man. Gone Fishin’.
Pick a saying, pick a cliche. Hang whatever sign you want. The Buffalo Sabres are hoping a trip to Florida can be a huge panacea for a season that has fast taken on water.
The Sabres practiced early Monday morning then jetted to Tampa, where they will meet the Lightning tonight in the Tampa Bay Times Forum. They’ll play the Florida Panthers Thursday in Sunrise. It’s the annual fathers/mentors trip, with elders accompanying the players and hoping to see the end of a four-game losing streak that has cost longtime coach Lindy Ruff his job, dropped the Sabres to last in the Eastern Conference and on the precipice of last overall in the NHL.
“You need to have belief,” winger Drew Stafford said Monday. “As bad as it gets, obviously we’re not going to give up. We have the right guys in here that we can turn it around. We’ve done it before. … We’ve got roughly 30 games or so left and it’s one of those things where it has to start tomorrow.”
The environment around the team in Buffalo is as toxic as it’s been since the 2002-03 bankruptcy season, when the NHL was operating the club in the wake of the Rigas fiasco and then-HSBC Arena was half-full.
But now the stands are packed. There are more than 15,000 season ticket holders and a group of fans that tore apart the Sabres Store to buy more than 50,000 pieces of merchandise during the one-week sale that greeted them during training camp week.
And they’re not happy.
The no-longer-faithful are jumping the team with boos at every opportunity. There are Bronx cheers for last-minute-in-the-period announcements and even at times for shots on goal or mere forays outside their end of the rink.
“As much as it hurts, they have every right to do it,” defenseman Tyler Myers said after Saturday’s 4-0 loss to the New York Islanders. “Fans’ expectations on us are very high, and they should be. Hockey town like this, with as much support as we get from them, it’s not acceptable for us.”
Opposing writers and broadcasters have been shocked by the lack of noise in the building and the level of vitriol in the crowd. Interim coach Ron Rolston got no introduction Saturday on the public-address system or the jumbotron and there’s little acknowledgment from the fans for the players taking the ice or being introduced with the starting lineups.
The team has irritated some fans even more by trying to create atmosphere with music at heavy metal-concert volume. All it’s doing is blasting eardrums and masking the fact the paying customers have essentially been mute – other than times like the “Fi-re Dar-cy” chant directed at General Manager Darcy Regier in the 300 level Saturday.
It was just nine days ago that the Sabres had a third-period lead against Pittsburgh and were 12 minutes away from back-to-back wins over the Penguins and Boston Bruins. Since then, they’ve scored two goals in 195 minutes of hockey and endured the firing of the longest-tenured coach in the NHL.
Bet this was all a little tougher than Rolston thought it might be when he signed on last Wednesday.
“Right now we’re at the point where we don’t have anything structurally to build on in terms of belief,” Rolston said. “You go into a hockey game and some teams in this league hope they’re gonna win and some teams know they’re gonna win that night. The better teams are the ‘know-win’ teams and we’re right now the ‘hope’ team.
“To get from hope to know is a process. To get there, you’ve got to do a lot of things well and you have to do it for 60 minutes. We’re still hoping and our job is to get to the point we’re knowing.”
The Sabres used a jaunt out West last year to hunker down together and save their season. Ryan Miller pitched back-to-back shutouts in Anaheim and San Jose to kick-start a March run that nearly resulted in a playoff berth.
Six of the Sabres’ next seven games are on the road so this is a similar chance. But with all games in the East, someone the Sabres are chasing is winning.
“We don’t have to kid ourselves,” said winger Thomas Vanek. “We have what, 29 games left? We probably have to win 21 of them to even have a chance.”
Vanek said the idea of going on the road isn’t all that appealing to him even with the rough atmosphere in his home rink of late. Still, he admitted it might be a help on the stress level in the locker room, especially with some of the younger players.
“To me, it’s just believe, be positive,” Vanek said. “There’s no reason to talk anymore. We just need to do better. ... If you can’t handle it, you’re in the wrong business anyway. I’d much rather stay here and get a win for the fans and get them something to cheer about. But maybe it’s good sometimes for some guys to get away and get on the road.”