TORONTO – Knowing when the season will end is a new experience for Dan Bylsma. He doesn’t like it.
Bylsma made the playoffs during all six of his seasons coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins. His debut season in Buffalo will end after 82 regular-season games. There are only 15 remaining, starting with Tuesday’s home game against the New York Rangers.
“It’s not something I’m real comfortable with,” said Bylsma, who admitted the year has been an emotional roller coaster. “I probably have been more exuberant and more emotional probably both ways, winning and losing. It takes a toll on you not winning hockey games and not having success. At the same time, the wins that we’ve had and some of the good that we’ve had has felt better, been better points for me personally.”
The Sabres improved to 27-31-9 after a 4-3 victory over Toronto in Monday’s game. Bylsma knew he wasn’t inheriting a potential Stanley Cup winner this season, but the lessons in losing have still been tough.
“You know you’re developing a process with your team, trying to build expectations to win and win every night,” he said. “That’s a process that we’ve been in since Day One, and that’s one we have to learn how to play the right way. We have to learn and develop that attitude in our team. That’s one I think we’ve been real close to a lot, but it’s one we’re still in the process of developing. That’s been hard. There’s no question about that.”
The Sabres entered Monday’s schedule 14 points out a playoff spot. They’d be closer with even marginal success in the shootout. They are 2-6, a record Bylsma laments.
“We’re looking at the lack of success in that department, and it could really mean five, six more wins for this hockey team,” the coach said. “Whether the shootout is a skills competition or another part of the game, it would mean a significant amount more success for us in the win column if we’d been able to execute and have success in the shootout, and that for me is difficult.”
The Rangers arrived in Buffalo as a depleted bunch. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (neck), forward Rick Nash (leg) and defensemen Marc Staal (back spasms) and Dylan McIlrath (knee) will miss the game against the Sabres. New York has called up rookie blue-liner Brady Skjei, who has appeared in three games this season.
Lundqvist suffered his injury Thursday after a collision with teammate Ryan McDonagh. After the referee failed to stop play, the goaltender angrily knocked the net over to earn a penalty for delay of game.
“When I realized the puck is in our end, I was not really ready to play. That was the truth,” Lundqvist told reporters Monday in New York. “I don’t know how I came up with the conclusion to move the net, but that’s what came up in my head, and I’m not going to apologize for it because I was just not in a position where I could play the game.
“I needed a whistle. If the ref’s not going to give me one, I’m going to deal with it my way. Could I have done it differently? Absolutely. But at the same time, it was a really tough hit where I was not really thinking straight, I think. But I got the whistle.”
Sabres center Jack Eichel is familiar with media microphones, but he was taken aback by the large contingent waiting for him to debut in the Centre of the Hockey Universe.
“So this is Toronto, huh?” Eichel said in Air Canada Centre. “Wow.”
He’ll quickly get used to it. The Sabres play in Toronto again March 19 and host the Maple Leafs on March 31.
“It’s a good stretch for us with a lot of games this month with three against our rival,” Eichel said. “You want to come out on the better end.”
Toronto goaltender Garret Sparks, an Illinois native, was eager to face Eichel.
“It’s pretty exciting being an American-born hockey player and getting to go up against one of the best guys the country has produced in a while,” Sparks said. “I’ve seen a lot of him, me and my roommate watching him closely, so it’s a pretty cool experience to be going against him.”