The blue line used to be a party spot for the Buffalo Sabres. The defensemen started scoring plays and finished them, and they were rewarded with head taps and victories.
The celebrations have diminished. Offensive numbers have tumbled for every defenseman, and the wins have left town with all that "mild winter" talk.
"We haven't scored that much, and we haven't been winning, so maybe that has something to do with it," Sabres defenseman Teppo Numminen said Tuesday. "For sure, we have to play better."
When the Sabres enter HSBC Arena tonight for their rematch with the Boston Bruins, they'll bring their first three-game winless streak with them. The defensemen are carrying additional baggage.
The blue-liners were integral to the Sabres' dazzling start. The Sabres went 18-3-1 in the first 22 games, and the defensemen were all over the stat sheets. Brian Campbell had 16 points. Numminen had 13. Toni Lydman had the fewest points among the five heathly regulars, and he still had seven assists in just 15 games.
No one has kept up the pace as the Sabres have gone a pedestrian 13-8-3 in the last 24 games. While numbers are down teamwide, defensemen have dropped considerably. Numminen has just three assists in his last 22 games. Campbell has two assists in the past 10. Jaroslav Spacek had 11 points in his first 22 games, seven in the 23 that followed. Lydman has added only three assists to the seven with which he started.
Only Dmitri Kalinin has come close to maintaining his output. He had eight points in the opening 22 games, seven in the past 24.
"It's down, obviously," Campbell said. "It's frustrating, but you've just got to keep trying to chip in. I think teams are playing us differently, and we've just got to adapt to that."
One reason for the drop-off is the disappearance of the fast break. The defensemen would slide a pass from their zone to center ice, and they would get an assist when the forwards scored on the two-on-one.
But teams aren't pressuring the defensemen as much, choosing instead to sit near center ice and take away the long pass.
"Some of the D-men have to carry it a little more before we can make a pass, or else we have to move it right away, because they're just really clogging up the neutral zone on us," said defenseman Nathan Paetsch, who replaced Henrik Tallinder during much of the hot streak and is doing so again during the cold stretch.
The defensemen also are finding that space has tightened in the offensive zone. Many teams are collapsing toward their net, so the defensemen try to work the puck along the boards to spread out the opposition.
"Get them running a little bit around the defensive zone, which we've been doing good," Spacek said. "But sometimes the shot doesn't go through. Lots of teams' focus is all about blocking shots. They're in the lanes, and it's even tougher to get the goals from the blue line."
The defensemen took just four of the Sabres' 36 shots in Monday's 3-2 shootout loss to the Bruins.
When discussing the Sabres' decreasing fortunes, the power play inevitably creeps into the conversation. It's no different this time. During the opening 22 games, Numminen had seven assists with the man advantage. He has one since. Spacek opened with one goal and eight assists on the power play, but he's generated just two assists since Nov. 22.
"Obviously, the power play is not going great," Campbell said. "There's a lot of points to be had there, but that's not going very well."
The defensemen are eager to celebrate again. Not just because it will help the team, but also because it will help themselves.
"You always want to have points or goals to help the team. If you don't have points, you feel like you're not part of the team," Spacek said. "With the system that we play -- speedy game, everyone tries to join the rush -- it doesn't really matter who gets the points. But just for the person, it matters."