The Buffalo Sabres always start practice gathering by the boards with coach Dan Bylsma. There's usually chuckling, some stick taps, a little horseplay and idle chatter before the coach briefly goes over the day's plan.
There was none of that Wednesday. You could hear a pin drop in KeyBank Center. The players stood silently. Bylsma's voice wasn't loud but his face was stone cold and his words appeared stern and edgy.
He had good reason. The Sabres came off the All-Star break and dropped a complete stinkbomb Tuesday in Montreal, a 5-2 loss that saw them score both of their goals in garbage time when they were already down, 5-0. They're seven points out of a playoff spot, 15th in the Eastern Conference and 27th in the NHL.
But the Sabres haven't given up hope: They were 4-0 at home in January and 11 of their next 16 will be downtown as part of a jam-packed schedule the next four weeks. The stretch starts Thursday night against the New York Rangers and continues Saturday night against Ottawa.
Practice was a 55-minute workout full of 5-on-5 situations. With so many games, there will be very little practice time this month, so Bylsma took advantage of the opportunity Wednesday.
"We needed to get to work and improve on some things we didn't do well in Montreal," he said. "You don't have a ton of time to do it with the schedule we have, playing 12 games in 20 nights. I thought we had a good 20-minute segment of that practice where we really got to work on the things we needed to get better at."
The Sabres were blitzed by the Habs, turning the puck over with impunity and constantly getting caught out of position in their defensive zone to leave goaltender Robin Lehner little hope of saving the day.
"We have to throw that out the window," said winger Marcus Foligno, "because it was horrendous."
"That can’t be how we play. That can’t be who we are as a group," Bylsma said. "... That wasn't a good game from from the group but that's also not who we are as a group and how we play. There's got to be a rebound as to how we respond."
The Sabres have their bye week from Feb. 20-24 but have 11 games from Thursday through Feb. 19, with eight at home. Overall in February, they play nine of their 14 games here. They're 9-12-6 on the road this year but 11-8-3 at home, including 6-2 in their last eight. They're averaging 3.37 goals per game in that stretch.
"We’ve been a hard team to play against," Bylsma said. "Not necessarily physically ... We’ve played a fast game, a game to the offensive zone and been a tough team to handle at home, and that’s really where we’ve had our success in our games and had our success, whether it’s home or the road."
"It feels like we've played a lot on the road this year," Foligno said. "We're scoring goals at home. The last four have been good teams coming in but our confidence has been high, our power play has been hot. We just have to make sure we're continuing that."
The Sabres' January perfection at home included solid performances in wins over Philadelphia and Dallas, a three-goal third period in a comeback win over Winnipeg and a rally that produced an overtime victory over Detroit. They scored 15 goals in the four games.
"We have to keep playing with high energy at home," said defenseman Zach Bogosian. "We've had some pretty electric wins in here of late and you want to make that continue."
"We have good confidence at home," added goaltender Anders Nilsson. "The fans were great here in January and that definitely helps. We need all the support they can give us. The way they got it going really helped us."
Nilsson is one Sabre who seems to benefit from the home cooking more than anyone on the roster. At home this year, he's 6-1-1 with a 1.84 goals-against average and .946 save percentage. On the road? he's 2-6-3/3.20/.904.
"I haven't even thought about it that much honestly," Nilsson said. "It's a team game and we've been playing much better hockey at home than on the road. That's really a huge part of it right there.
"The team has really helped me. I prepare the same way. Morning skate at home, morning skate on the road. It's a team game. We have a better record at home so I'll have a better record at home."