The way it all started, one might have thought the Buffalo Sabres would sail through the season without a hint of worry, spilling not a drop of fretful sweat.
They opened up with 10 straight victories, tying the NHL record. They scored at least five times in half their initial 22 games, on eight occasions winning by three goals or more. It appeared that Buffalo's stiffest test would be feigning interest as the rest of the Eastern Conference was rendered agape by their blistering winning percentage and incomparable transition game.
But there's a distinction between the Sabres of October and November and the team winning less emphatically in December and January, when they're winning, that is, which is less often of late. The loss count is up to three in five games -- a season first excluding overtime defeats -- after the Toronto Maple Leafs outworked, out-shot and outscored the Eastern Conference leaders, 4-2, Thursday night in HSBC Arena.
Circumstances have changed. No longer is Buffalo afforded the luxury of underdog status, or perceived indignation, its favorite sources of nourishment. The Sabres fed off their light regard coming out of the lockout, responding to critics with a "We'll show you." They took up the challenge when injuries to the likes of Daniel Briere, J.P. Dumont and Tim Connolly threatened to derail them midyear, and then again when their defense was gutted late in the playoffs.
Free agency dealt them their edge for the start of this season, the affront they crave, when back in training camp the departures of Dumont, Mike Grier and Jay McKee were portrayed as a threat to their chemistry, a hairline fracture in their makeup. But yet again they raised the flag high, rallying from within to dismiss the suggestion they'd be less this go than the last time around.
But here we are, nearing the middle of January, and the Sabres find themselves fresh out of adversity to stir the disdain they embrace. Win without Connolly? Mission accomplished. Make due without Henrik Tallinder? Been there, done that. Buffalo went into Thursday leading the Eastern Conference by nine points with two games in hand, which isn't cushion enough to mail in the second half but allows for the occasional trip to the post office. Win often enough and the sense of desperation wanes, that being human nature.
"I don't know if that's true," Adam Mair said. "[Coach] Lindy [Ruff]'s pretty demanding on us. We have a lot of expectations for ourselves and put on us by management. So I wouldn't say that's the case. We want to keep moving forward and building toward good habits. And tonight we might have been the victim of a back-to-back game, but maybe not. We didn't have our feet going in the first period and just too many costly turnovers."
What Toronto accomplished Thursday night was no fluke. Coach Paul Maurice has extracted discipline out of an infusion of youth necessitated by injuries to key regulars, including Darcy Tucker and Michael Peca. The Leafs surrendered the Sabres scant room in Toronto on Saturday night, forechecked with vigor, came away a goal short. And then they proved in the rematch they were undeterred by the result, perhaps even emboldened, the Sabres being the team every team in the East is after.
That's what the Sabres must come to grips with. In a matter of a year they've gone from the hunter to the prey.
"Every team's gunning for you," Mair said. "Every team is coming in trying to measure themselves against you. Those are the kind of situations that make the good teams good, because come the end when it really matters that's what you're going to be up against."