As the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ road crew set up for a concert Friday, joyful shouts echoed from the 100 Level concourse. No, it wasn’t rock fans getting a glimpse of the band in KeyBank Center.
It was the Sabres having a ball while playing ball.
Buffalo canceled its morning practice in HarborCenter and elected for team bonding in the main arena. The players carried soccer balls and giant fitness balls upstairs. From the sounds of it, they had a good time bouncing them around.
“It was just nice to have a little fun,” right wing Kyle Okposo said. “You’re playing so many games here, and your mind’s on hockey constantly. It’s nice to get a little change of pace, take your mind off things and hopefully come rejuvenated” to Saturday’s game in Toronto.
The Sabres certainly could have used practice after a mistake-filled 5-2 loss to Anaheim on Thursday, but they also could have used a mental break. Buffalo is in a season-defining stretch of 11 games in 18 days, and the team has started the run just 2-2-1.
“We played a ton of hockey in the last 10 days, and we play six in nine here,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “We had a meeting. We had a video and just an activity with the group.”
The team then boarded the bus for a meeting with the Maple Leafs in Air Canada Centre. It’s the third matchup of the five-game series, and the Leafs have won the first two.
The Sabres are just 7-10-3 against Atlantic Division foes, a big reason they’re in seventh place out of eight teams.
“That’s where you make the playoffs right there pretty much,” Okposo said. “We see these guys a lot, and we have to make sure we’re doing a better job against them.”
Defenseman Cody Franson couldn’t get his kicks with his teammates. He stood by the fun with a crutch and a walking boot.
Franson blocked a shot with his foot Thursday. He definitely won’t play Saturday or when Vancouver visits Sunday. The results from further evaluation Friday will determine how much more time he misses.
The severity of the injury could affect the trade deadline. If Buffalo remains off the playoff pace, Franson is a pending unrestricted free agent who would bring assets at the March 1 deadline.
Franson had been playing his best hockey during the past few weeks, contributing two goals and seven points in the last 10 games.
Center Zemgus Girgensons will also sit this weekend. He has missed one game so far with a full-body injury.
“He’s more than day-to-day at this point,” Bylsma said. “It’ll be through the weekend, then we’ll see on Monday.”
The coach said Zach Bogosian (ribs) skated on his own, and the team will evaluate his reaction to contact. With Evander Kane healthy, the Sabres have sent forward Evan Rodrigues back to Rochester.
The Leafs don’t figure to be the tonic that ails Buffalo’s team defense, but they could provide a boost to the offense.
The Sabres have allowed 40 or more shots in the three of the past five games. Toronto is third in the NHL at 32.4 shots per game.
“If you look over the last handful of games going back to before the All-Star break,” Bylsma said, “we’ve given up an average of 20 to 21 scoring chances over that stretch of seven or eight games, and that’s really got to come down.
“The Ottawa game where we win, 4-0, is a 14-scoring-chance game. That’s really where we’ve been lacking over that eight games is getting it under 15. A 14-or-under number is what we’re shooting for.”
Toronto, meanwhile, has allowed 40 or more shots in three of its past four games. The Sabres took just 26 against Anaheim and Ottawa, and they had only 23 against New Jersey.
“We’ve got to come out cleaner out of our own zone,” Okposo said. “I’ve said it all year. That’s where everything starts. We sit in our own zone for 30 seconds, then you finally get the puck out and it’s not a clean exit, and then you’re tired and you’ve got to change.
“If you come out of your own zone clean in 10 seconds, then you have a lot more energy to play offense and create more chances.”