The Buffalo Sabres have spent two weeks generating plenty of offensive chances and getting few rewards. So Friday's 4-1 win over Montreal was a huge relief for a beleaguered team.
Next hurdle to cross: Get some goals on the power play. A big obstacle in that area has been the absence of playmaking center Tim Connolly, out the last five games with a strained oblique muscle.
Connolly skated Sunday in HSBC Arena and the Sabres are hoping they can have him back when they host Ottawa on Wednesday night.
"We have no guarantee yet Tim will play. He's still not 100 percent," coach Lindy Ruff said. "He can skate and do some things but he really isn't involved to a full extent yet. We're hopeful but there's no guarantees right now."
Connolly skated Sunday with Ales Kotalik and Maxim Afinogenov. His normal spot with Jason Pominville and Jochen Hecht is currently occupied by Clarke MacArthur.
The numbers clearly define Connolly's role as one of the team's chief playmakers. In spite of his absence, Connolly remains tied for the team lead in assists with 11.
"He sees the ice well, passes the puck so well," Pominville said. "I was on his line and we were going pretty good. He's a fun guy to play with and enjoyable to watch. He's creative and you never know what he's going to do out there."
The Buffalo power play is just 1 for its last 19 chances and is 2 for 23 since Connolly went out Nov. 5 at Montreal.
"He's a force on the half-wall," Pominville said. "We're moving the puck better, trying to get shots and that's how you generate opportunities. All Montreal [the NHL's power-play leader] does is get pucks on net. You have to simplify it and keep it to basics but having Timmy there will be huge for us."
"He'll make a difference," Ruff agreed. "That's really been his specialty so far."
When Connolly returns, the Sabres have a good dilemma to deal with. It's unlikely they would send MacArthur back to Rochester, given production that includes his Nov. 7 overtime winner against Boston and two goals Friday night.
"That may create a good situation where guys have to look around, see how well [MacArthur] is playing and know that the guys who are going the best have to play the most," Ruff said.
The Sabres were off Saturday and worked out for an hour Sunday. Ruff acknowledged that Friday's win, which saw Buffalo score the first goal for the first time in 15 games, was a case of the Sabres sticking to their offensive system and finally seeing the puck go in the net.
"My job was to make sure they didn't lose hope," Ruff said. "It's easy to blow things up and try something different but we've got it ingrained that we're going to stick with it and we were going to get some bounces. And we finally got some. That's what it usually amounts to."
While MacArthur's two goals led the way, Thomas Vanek had one of his best skating games of the season even though it was his sixth straight without a goal. Flying up and down the wing, Vanek had a pair of assists and several good scoring chances.
"That was very significant," Ruff said of Vanek. "We've got a lot of guys playing better now than they were 10 days ago.
"For me from Thomas, it's [seeing his] feet moving and quick plays and I think we saw that the last couple of games. The drive through the neutral zone was there."
Ruff said the stop-and-start nature of the team's schedule has been tough to deal with this month. The Sabres played four games in six days, then had four days off. Then they played back-to-back nights and are in the midst of another four days off.
Wednesday's game starts a grind of five games in eight nights, including three in the first four nights.
"To have Saturday-Sunday off for the hockey business is strange," Ruff said. "[Sitting for long stretches] is tough. You'd rather play a couple days and get right back at it."
Another odd scheduling quirk is that Wednesday's game is the third of five straight against either Ottawa or Montreal.