LOS ANGELES — Drew Stafford hasn’t lost faith in himself, even if plenty of others have. He knows he can be a difference maker and positive influence when given the right opportunity.
He and the Buffalo Sabres hope their signature game can be a springboard toward better times.
Stafford shined during the Sabres’ 5-4 shootout win over San Jose on Tuesday. He had one goal, two points, brought speed to the offense and balance to the penalty kill while matching his season high with 26 shifts.
While the night wasn’t perfect, it was fun for a change. He and his teammates want to carry that feeling into tonight’s game against the Los Angeles Kings in Staples Center.
“It’s got to start somewhere,” Stafford said. “You can take all the positives you want from a loss, but when you win one, that can make it even better.”
Stafford, in his eighth NHL season and third year of a four-year deal that pays $4 million annually, has mirrored the organization in having a rough season. He hasn’t found a home under coach Ron Rolston.
Part of it is Stafford’s doing. For instance, he had a front-row seat at the top of the crease when Dallas opened the scoring last week. As a result, he played a season-low 6:13 in the Stars’ victory.
Drops in desire have been noticeable at times, but the Dallas incident may have been a carryover from the previous game, when Stafford was penalized for no apparent reason. The Sabres were penalty-taking fiends against Tampa Bay, but Stafford worked hard short-handed to keep Buffalo close. When crunch time came and the Sabres needed a tying goal at five-on-five, Rolston pinned Stafford to the bench without explanation.
“The type of role I’ve been playing, I’m just trying to make sure my penalty killing is good and making sure I’m getting pucks in, playing a good defensive role the best I can,” Stafford said. “But to get on the offensive side of things – because I feel like that’s the kind of player I am – to produce and get on the score sheet that way is definitely huge.
“Hopefully, I can continue to build and keep producing.”
The Sabres need production from Stafford. Goals have been few and far between on the youth-laden squad. As a former 30-goal scorer who’s also topped 20 twice, he needs to accomplish more than two goals and five points in 17 games.
Stafford’s paltry numbers have earned him a spot on the fourth line, but his performance Tuesday helped him escape it.
“We’re trying to get him different looks, different opportunities to get himself going,” Rolston said. “The veterans have to help out with the development of some of these players.”
The vets and rookies can take a lot from the rare victory. They built 3-1 and 4-3 leads in the third period against an NHL powerhouse. More impressively, they didn’t let the Sharks pull ahead despite a furious rally in the rollicking building.
“We played an unbelievable team and we came out with a win,” center Marcus Foligno said. “We expect to play hard like this, and this was a huge game, a confidence-builder. It was fun, and we’ve got to keep that going.”
They’ve got back-to-back tests to see if the good times will roll. The Kings boast a 9-6 record. Buffalo visits Anaheim on Friday, and the Ducks entered Wednesday’s games atop the Western Conference at 12-3-1.
“To go on the road and play a team like San Jose and get two points was a big thing for us,” Rolston said.
“It’s our obligation now to build on that as a team. I liked our effort, and it all goes back to that. It goes back to execution and effort. If we can do that for 60-minute spans, we’re going to win hockey games.”