The injury-riddled Buffalo Sabres have treaded water for 20 games hoping to get some of their talent back. Ryan O'Reilly returned to the lineup Wednesday night and Jack Eichel was on the ice at the morning skate, looking good enough to make it clear he's going to be back within the next two weeks and probably sooner.
Even through a ghastly six-game losing streak, the Sabres haven't fallen completely out of touch in the standings. It might feel like they should be about 14 points out of a playoff spot already, but the reality is they're only four back of the final wild-card slot.
Still, it could be so much different. Coach Dan Bylsma smacked the lecturn in frustration when that point was brought up to him after Wednesday's 2-1 shootout loss to the Detroit Red Wings in KeyBank Center. Former Sabre Thomas Vanek got the winning goal in the shootout as the Sabres fell to 7-8-5 overall and blew a chance to get to .500 through 20 games with 20 points.
The Sabres are 1-3 in shootouts and tied with Dallas for the NHL lead in losses past 60 minutes at five. They have played eight games decided by the 2-1 count and are just 3-2-3 in them. Their record in one-goal games overall is just 3-2-5.
"We're right there. You kind of feel that a number of times obviously," Bylsma said. "We're leaving a point on the table just not burying that chance, not getting that goal right there in overtime. "
The Sabres outshot the Wings, 33-24, and hit at least four goalposts or crossbars in the game. But aside from Brian Gionta's goal at 1:42 of the third period, they couldn't beat goaltender Jimmy Howard.
"You never want to give up those points so it's tough," Gionta said. "We were looking to get back to .500 tonight. It was a big goal of ours to get back to that .500 mark. But come out, have a good effort Friday against Washington and you can consider it a really good week still."
The Sabres blew a golden opportunity to become classic Even Stevens. They could have been 8-8-4 for 20 points in 20 games, could have improved to 4-4-2 at home to match their 4-4-2 on the road. They could have evened November at 5-5-2 after a 3-3-2 October.
None of it happened. Again, the offense was to blame.
The Sabres had 17 more shot attempts in the game and outshot Detroit, 15-5, over the third period and overtime but couldn't dent Howard. Among the best chances, Matt Moulson hit a post with about three minutes left in regulation and Rasmus Ristolainen did likewise in OT.
"It doesn't matter about possession ... it's about putting the puck in the net," O'Reilly said. "Myself, I have to find a way to do that early and provide life. You can just see it. Too many times we fall into that where we can't get scored on. It's a tough way to come back."
The Sabres' margin for error is so small that goaltender Robin Lehner's clear issue in shootouts has to be of growing concern.
Lehner has a 2.38 goals-against average and .922 save percentage on the season, and stopped 23 of the 24 shots he faced through overtime. But he was doubly burned in the shootout, on Gustav Nyquist's deke that slipped the puck through his legs and Vanek's patented "around the world" move that preceded a sizzling snapshot to the top corner.
While Lehner was going 0 for 2 in the skills competition, Howard went 2 for 3 to earn the win. The Sabres are just 1-3 in shootouts this year, with Lehner losing both of his -- and allowing all four shooters to score on him.
"Every shooter for me right now is a tough shooter. I'm not really in the zone in the shootouts to put it lightly," Lehner said. "I've been practicing it every day and in practice I'm stopping the puck. In games, I'm not."
A cynic, of course, might point out that Lehner's practice saves are coming against one of the NHL's most impotent offenses. Want a wacko stat? The Sabres have scored just six even-strength goals in their 10 home games this season.
Bylsma said the team has changed some of the patterns it does shootouts in at practice to try to help Lehner.
"It's something I think it's probably a little bit mental at this point in time," Bylsma said. "He's practiced them differently, practiced them well and it's just not happening in the game for him."
Lehner's shootout numbers are nothing new really. He's just 7-13 in his career and has allowed 28 goals in 64 attempts, an ugly .563 save percentage. Conversely, backup Anders Nilsson is 1-1 this year and 7-1 in his career. Nilsson has stopped four of six shots against him this year and 17 of 22 in his career (.773)
"It was two decent moves today," Lehner said. "Obviously a pretty good shot by Vanek, but I've got to mix in a save and it's just not coming from me."
"You can say whatever you want, we hit four posts. Any one of them could have gone in, we could have won in regular time, could have won in overtime. We could have won in a shootout too but I'm not really making those saves right now."