SUNRISE, Fla. — The offense has gone cold and Thomas Vanek is injured again. Whatever reason you want to pick, Drew Stafford is going to get another chance in the Buffalo Sabres’ lineup.
A healthy scratch the last two games whose name is on every NHL trade deadline rumor list, Stafford will play in the game tonight against the Florida Panthers. He has just four goals and a minus-12 rating in 31 games but interim coach Ron Rolston is taking a stab in the dark that Stafford can help revive an offense that has mustered just three goals and 32 shots on goal over the last two outings.
“We just want him to go out there and make things happen for our team and lead the way for us,” Rolston said of Stafford, one of his alternate captains, Wednesday after practice in the BB&T Center. “He’s in that position because he earned it and that’s what he’s got to do.
“Lately, it’s been a reminder about the things he’s got to get back to more than anything. All of our guys just can’t take for granted they’re going to be in the lineup. We need them to play a certain way.”
It’s pretty much assumed just about no one played that way Tuesday in Tampa as the Sabres mustered just seven shots in the first 40 minutes. They finished with a season-low 14 in their 2-1 loss to the Lightning.
“You shouldn’t wait until the third period to turn it up a notch,” center Cody Hodgson said. “We needed to be in that mode the whole game. They had a pretty good collapse going down low and they take away all your routes so you’ve got to make sure you use your points to get some offense going. That was part of our strategy but getting only 14 shots isn’t nearly enough.”
Buffalo forwards managed just 10 shots on goal in the game and Vanek left with none in 13½ minutes after suffering what Rolston termed a muscle strain in his upper body. Vanek did not skate Wednesday and was gimpy as he was seen walking around the locker room area; Rolston has not yet ruled him out for tonight.
Stafford went the first 14 games this season without a goal and hasn’t scored in seven of his last eight outings. Still, the former No. 1 draft pick remains a desirable commodity and Western Conference clubs like Los Angeles, Detroit and Edmonton are all rumored to be interested in acquiring him prior to next Wednesday’s NHL trade deadline.
“That’s not something I’m thinking about,” Stafford said. “I need to ignore the noise, focus on getting better and improving myself. Being out of the lineup, my No. 1 priority is focusing on coming back, playing strong and playing hard and helping this team win games. That’s all about where my head is at.”
Stafford was in Vanek’s place on a line Wednesday with Ville Leino and Tyler Ennis and it’s a good bet that’s where he would play tonight. Prior to his scratch, he had been exiled to the fourth line.
“It’s obvious when you’re watching the game it’s a lot easier compared to being in on ice level,” he said. “There’s not really anything new there that I was able to pick up. You see mistakes that we’re making. We just have to be better putting pucks on the net, winning battles and dealing with teams’ back pressure when we’re rushing.”
The only forward with four shots over the last two games is fourth-line center Jochen Hecht. Hodgson played 18:53 Tuesday without a shot – or even a single attempt.
“We know we can’t score without shooting the puck and we have to figure out more ways to get quality opportunities,” Hodgson said. “We looked at it [on video] and addressed some things.”
At one point during practice Wednesday, Rolston raised his voice for one of the rare times during his tenure, reminded the players about their weak performance Tuesday and implored them to shoot the puck more.
“It’s real basic,” he said afterward. “Same on the power play. We have a tendency to be too cute, try to make one extra pass. You don’t score many goals that way. We just have to get pucks to the net.”
While the point is clearly made during practice, Rolston seemed frustrated when asked why he can’t get through to his team on the issue during the game.
“It’s a good question,” he said. “What’s the saying there as far as communication? Go around the world in probably, what? Less than a second? And sometimes it takes months to get through the skull. It’s part of the process. We have to have a shooter’s mentality more than a passer’s.”