Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff likes to use the term bite -- as in having some -- to describe his team these days.
It fits, at least when you look at the long-toothed logo on the jersey, but maybe less so in the context of what has been happening this season on the ice for a team considered one of the NHL's model franchises after the lockout ended.
|'We're climbing,' Ryan Miller says. 'That's where you want to be right now.' (US Presswire)|
Buffalo was 14th in the East at the break, and after wins in its first two games back, has managed climbed to 11th spot in the conference. That's only two points from the eighth and final playoff berth, but at least five teams are in the mix for it.
It's a long way from where the reigning Presidents' Trophy winners might expect to be, and seemingly close to a worst-case scenario for a team that had its roster torn apart. But Ruff says it's part of dealing with the NHL's new economic landscape and insists his team's situation is not as bleak as it might look.
"We really felt we had a playoff team, and our expectation was to be in the race," Ruff said. "It's been a roller-coaster ride with the streaks we've had, no question. But we're a very young team that has battled injuries and has been very competitive.
"You lose the players we did, (Dainius) Zubrus, (Daniel) Briere, (Chris) Drury -- (Teppo) Numminen isn't in our back end -- you've lost a lot of years. But we've had a lot of bite and we've shown we can compete with the best teams. And we're in the playoff race."
Truth is, for most teams in the NHL these days, that's as good as it gets at this point. The Red Wings are running away from everyone, and the Stanley Cup champion Ducks have reloaded for the stretch run, but the East pack isn't separated by much from top to bottom, so the race for postseason spots is wide open, and any team that gets there in good shape presumably has a chance for a run.
That's the mindset in the majority of NHL locker rooms these days, but the Sabres made it tougher on themselves by going winless in 10 consecutive games after the Christmas break, which they went into riding a six-game winning streak. That kind of inconsistency has been an issue throughout for Buffalo, and as much as anything, it's the result of underwhelming output from young players the Sabres were counting on to step up and fill the offensive void.
Of course, the injuries Ruff was talking about certainly haven't helped. No. 1 center Tim Connolly, now out with a groin injury, has missed 16 games and counting. Speedster Maxim Afinogenov has been out for the past 12. Derek Roy missed four games before the break with a shoulder injury, and several defensemen have spent time on the shelf.
All-Star defenseman Brian Campbell has had a glittering offensive season that will likely cost Buffalo his services through free agency next summer, but even when healthy, no one among the Sabres forwards has put up the kind of numbers to offset the offense lost when Briere, Drury and Zubrus left. Most glaring has been the fallback of Thomas Vanek after a breakout season with 43 goals. Buffalo had to pony up $50 million to match an offer sheet last summer from Edmonton, but Vanek has only 14 goals.
"It's tough to be a go-to guy in this league. It's something you have to learn about how to do," goalie Ryan Miller said. "But we have guys who have been in big situations like the conference finals and they're learning with every game, and I think you'll see that kind of experience come out as we go down the stretch."
That's why Miller said the Sabres haven't hung their heads despite all the dark days. Buffalo played one of its most patient games to win 2-1 in Dallas just before the All-Star break and then shut down Tampa Bay's high-scoring machine after opening a four-goal lead by the midpoint of the second period. The Sabres followed it up the next night with a hard-fought 1-0 win Florida, and Miller said being where the team is now, the early season is irrelevant.
"We're still having trouble burying pucks, but I think the way we've played lately we're proving to ourselves that we can win different types of games," Miller said. "We're probably a few wins shy of where I thought we would be, but other than early in the season our effort has been there and we're climbing. That's where you want to be right now."