There have been major snowstorms and long power outages back home, but aside from the weather, the Buffalo Sabres have had little to worry about this season.
|Daniel Briere wants his team to fix their first period problems. (Getty Images)|
Mind you, no one around the team is panicking about Buffalo's lackluster play these days, which is understandable considering the Sabres bolted out of the gate with 10 consecutive victories and have not relinquished the Eastern Conference lead all season. The Sabres haven't lost two games in a row, and they own the NHL's top offense while ranking among the leaders in both power plays and penalty killing.
Things aren't bad off the ice, either, for an organization that went into bankruptcy less than four years ago. The Sabres continue to pack their building, they have five of the top eight vote-getters in fan All-Star Game balloting and their merchandise outsells every other team in the league.
So from a big picture perspective, life is generally pretty good for last season's Eastern Conference finalists, a team many predicted would win the Stanley Cup this time around.
But after spending the first six weeks of the season looking like supermen, the Sabres have appeared decidedly ordinary in recent weeks -- or at least they've stopped running away from the pack. Buffalo has gone only 5-4 over its past nine games, with one of those wins coming via a shootout, and that was after a stretch in which the Sabres won six of eight but allowed at least four goals in each one.
"We don't always make things easy on ourselves," said Buffalo's co-captain and leading scorer, Daniel Briere.
Not these days. Buffalo's most recent loss came in Florida, 3-1, on Thursday against the struggling Panthers. It might have been the Sabres' worst game of the season. In a forgettable effort, they were outshot 17-3 in the first period and 29-7 through 39 minutes, the kind of horrendous start that has become habit-forming recently for Buffalo.
Buffalo has the NHL's top record on the road. But the Sabres got their longest trip this season off on the wrong foot last Saturday, losing because they allowed the Washington Capitals to score four first-period goals on 15 shots. Buffalo survived a goal by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first minute a few nights later and went on to win, but the Sabres found themselves done in again by showing up late against the Panthers.
"It definitely seems like bad starts have been a pattern for the last three games or so, and it's a problem for us," said forward Adam Mair. "We have to figure out the reasons and address them."
Part of the problem is that as the season goes deeper and other teams are getting their games in sync, many are starting to figure out ways to neutralize or at least better contain Buffalo, arguably the league's fastest and most explosive team. While offense is all the rage in the NHL, there are a growing number of players suggesting the old way of doing things is creeping back into style, not so much in the form of obstruction, but rather through defensive schemes that can be stifling. "All we're seeing in the last month are traps, higher traps," said goaltender Ryan Miller. "Teams are starting to play more of a one-four, and their forecheck is a little more aggressive lately, so when they're not getting the puck, they're stacking up five guys across to push you to one side."
Those tactics didn't work earlier, when the Sabres seemed to have their legs moving all the time. It helped them clear their zone efficiently and created the quick transition they used so effectively, but opponents are finding more effective ways of slowing down the Sabres with each passing week.
"If you execute correctly, you can get by it," Miller said.
That may involve a little bit of an adjustment, and perhaps less overconfidence. Mair felt compelled to deny Buffalo had taken the last-place Panthers "for granted," something Briere admitted the team might be doing with itself.
"I think there has been a few times this year when we may have had trouble getting our legs going at the start of games, but we usually find a way to get through it," Briere said. "It's almost as if we expect it to come at some point and that's not the way to do things.
"Teams are too good in this league top to bottom to take a night off."