Talk about the luck of the draw. The Buffalo Sabres seek their first home-ice victory in a month tonight, and it so happens their opponents are the rebuilding Quebec Nordiques.
But the Sabres know from bitter experience that this season has not been a confluence of perception and practice. Last year, Buffalo collected 15 of a possible 16 points from the Nordiques, and the victory margin was at least two goals in four of the Sabres' seven wins.
So far this season, the Nordiques have taken five of a possible six points. And both of Quebec's victories, including an Oct. 12 win in Memorial Auditorium, have been by two-goal margins.
It's not as if the Sabres approach games against Quebec with the same trivial regard they afforded Soviet Khimik. The Nordiques have earned the rewards of their head-to-head meetings with the Sabres.
"I don't think we have taken them lightly," Christian Ruuttu said. "They're probably one of the toughest teams to play against. Everybody is saying how bad they are in the standings, but they aren't a bad team. It wasn't a bad team last year."
Tonight's game (7:05, cable, WGR) finds the Sabres at the crossroads. Buffalo desperately needs a victory to erase the self-doubt born of recent home-ice results. The Sabres are winless over their last five games at Memorial Auditorium since defeating Edmonton, 2-1, on Nov. 23. The winless streak began with a tie against Detroit, and was extended by losses to Hartford, Boston, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
One goal was the margin of defeat in three of those losses. The other was a 5-3 St. Louis victory secured with an empty-net goal.
"It just takes a couple breaks," Ruuttu said. "Nobody has blown us away. We're just losing one-goal games. We can't do that. As much as you can talk about it, it just can't happen."
Perhaps the Sabres might avoid those testy one-goal losses if they ever build a two-goal lead. Buffalo has not led an Aud game by as many as two goals since a 7-1 drubbing of Vancouver way back on Nov. 9.
"We probably haven't had that great start in the first period that other teams have had in their home rinks," Ruuttu said. "They come out flying, and it's very tough to get any kind of psychological edge on them. It looks right now that everybody knows we're struggling and they're trying not to give us anything. They're just trying to kick us more."
When will the Sabres kick back? Soon, they hope. A Quebec win tonight would give the Nordiques the unthinkable -- playoff aspirations.
"There are strong signs of resurgence," coach Rick Dudley said of his team following Saturday morning's practice.
Dudley cited among the positives the aggressive play of Robert Ray and trade-acquisition Lou Franceschetti, along with offensive rebirths of Dale Hawerchuk, Rick Vaive, Dave Andreychuk and Pierre Turgeon.
The next step is for the Sabres' offensive guns to fire in the same game.
"It's the same old story," Dudley said. "You have to have your people scoring that are supposed to score."