At this point, the Buffalo Sabres have to avert their eyes from the standings because the picture is pretty much always going to be ugly. They have to break the season down and chew on smaller nuggets.
Finally, the Sabres might be on to something. They are 2-2-1 in their last five games heading into tonight’s rematch with the Ottawa Senators in Canadian Tire Centre.
It’s by far their best five-game segment of the season, and it’s allowing shreds of belief to slowly creep into their locker room.
“There’s something different that’s been going on here the last couple of weeks. I’m sure everybody can feel it,” captain Steve Ott said after Tuesday’s 2-1 shootout win over the Senators in First Niagara Center.
“We’re close. We’re in games. We’re not getting the scoring but we’re getting good opportunities. If we start scoring goals, that’s a real difference-maker. When you’re scoring 3-4 goals a night, that’s where we need to get to because of the great goaltending we’re getting.”
The Sabres are still struggling mightily to score, with just seven goals in the five games. But they’ve only given up 10 goals, killed eight of nine penalties and dramatically cut down their shots on goal against.
Opponents are outshooting them by just 134-133 in the five games. The average of 26.8 against is nearly 10 fewer than the previous 27 contests, when Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth must have felt they were in a county fair shooting gallery at times.
Buffalo held Montreal to 19 shots in Saturday’s 3-2 loss, its fewest by an opponent this year. On Tuesday the Sabres equaled their season high for a game (36) and set a season mark for shots in a period (18 in the second).
“Moving your feet better leads to a lot of things,” Drew Stafford said. “It leads to more chances. It leads to taking less penalties. When you’re not moving your feet, you end up getting your stick in places it shouldn’t be. Our discipline has been better. We’ve improved in a lot of areas. We just have to keep at our goal scoring.”
Interim coach Ted Nolan, who gave his team off Wednesday, has been suitably impressed as well.
“The one thing I’ve really noticed the last week or so is the good guys are starting to rise a little bit and the guys not putting that effort in game in and game out are starting to stick out too,” Nolan said. “We’re in a production business and you have to perform.
“Everybody who plays in the National Hockey League has a certain level of talent. Not everybody has a certain level of grit. Grit is that perseverance when obstacles present themselves, you don’t stop pursuing your vision. It’s that grit factor that separates. We have to get to that level where we have people with some grit.”
The Senators will be without defenseman Jared Cowen tonight after he was suspended by the NHL for two games for nailing Zemgus Girgensons with a shot to the head just inside the Ottawa blue line with 1:58 left in the third period Tuesday.
There was no penalty on the play and Girgensons was not injured. He went on to score the shootout-deciding goal.
Cowen will forfeit $31,794.88. The money goes to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.
Cowen avoided a suspension after an elbow to the head of Detroit star Pavel Datsyuk on Nov. 23. Datsyuk wound up missing seven games with a concussion. He returned to the Red Wings’ lineup Tuesday night in Florida, recording a goal and an assist.
Brendan Shanahan, the NHL’s vice president of player safety, admitted last week on NHL Network that the hit was probably suspendable but Datsyuk finished that game. He developed symptoms afterward and did not travel to Buffalo for the Red Wings’ game on Nov. 24.
The Sabres improved to an NHL-best 4-0 in shootouts with Tuesday’s win. The 10-round affair was their longest ever in a victory; the franchise record of 11 rounds was set in a 4-3 loss to Colorado in 2010 with Patrick Lalime in goal.
Miller made seven saves Tuesday, snapping a tie with New York’s Henrik Lundqvist for the most career shootout wins in NHL history. Miller is 46-27, including 24-13 at home, while Lundqvist is 45-30.
Former Sabres forward Adam Mair has joined the HarborCenter Academy of Hockey staff as a coach, academy director Kevyn Adams announced Wednesday.
Mair, who played 498 games for the Sabres from 2002-2010, has spent the past two years as the director of player development for Canisius College. He will lead clinics while also providing on-ice instruction and classroom teaching.
The Academy of Hockey will provide development programs, on and off-ice training lectures and private classes for coaches and players. It is a key component of the Sabres’ new complex slated to open next fall adjacent to First Niagara Center.