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With R&R over, Sabres return to ice focused on Ws

DENVER -- For four days, there was sun and surf time and family time. That quickly ended here Friday afternoon as the Buffalo Sabres reconvened off their bye week. Practice at the University of Denver was no skull session for coach Dan Bylsma. Not many Xs and Os.

"We all looked like we had four days off," a smiling Bylsma said after the 50-minute session. "It's a long, long time to be away from the ice and not practicing. Combine that with the high altitude here and we just had to get out there, blow some of the sand off our feet and get a good skate in."

In advance of Saturday's game against the Colorado Avalanche in the Pepsi Center, Bylsma had his team doing quick paced drills with plenty of odd-man rushes and some full 5-on-5 mixed in.

"It wasn't really the cleanest practice but you can't expect that," said center Jack Eichel. "But it was good, it was a productive day for us. You get your legs going a little bit and get to feel the puck. That's the biggest difference not being on the ice for four days is not feeling it. Your hands aren't the same and your execution isn't what it would be."

The Sabres were actually fortunate they got to practice Friday. Home teams coming off the bye often have gone right to the morning skate on game days out of their break. It's one reason NHL teams are just 4-12-4 in their first game coming off the bye this season.

"It was good to get the cobwebs out, get used to handling the puck and feeling the puck again," said winger Evander Kane. "You hope your morning skate is a little bit smoother, little bit crisper."

The Sabres will have to be sharp because a game against the woeful Avalanche will be no gimme. Buffalo is 0-3-2 in its last five against the Avs in Denver and haven't won here since a 6-4 victory on Dec. 4, 2005.

"We don't have any room to drop one off the bye," Eichel said. "This is a big road trip for us, two games we need to win. There's no room for bad play."

The Sabres play here Saturday, then have a game against the Arizona Coyotes Sunday in Glendale. They return home to host Nashville Tuesday in the final game before Wednesday's NHL trade deadline.

And with only 22 games left, the Sabres need every point. They're 26-24-10 for 62 points in 60 games and enter the weekend six points out of both the final wild-card slot (New York Islanders) and third place in the Atlantic Division (Toronto). They are even in games played with both of those teams and got some help during their break as they didn't return facing the kind of double-digit deficit in points that seemed possible.

"Any points are bad at this point in time but we got a few good games for us," Bylsma said. "There were going to be teams that picked up points and that's the case. Now we have an opportunity where we play three in four nights here, get to Wednesday and have six points we can gain. That's just the challenge for us coming off the break where we have to be on our best."

Here's how others in the Atlantic Division/Eastern Conference have fared while the Sabres have been idle:

---Toronto (68 points, 60 games played): Went 1-0-1, beating Winnipeg in overtime and losing to the New York Rangers in a shootout -- to fall to an NHL-worst 1-7 in the skills competition. Remember that if the Leafs miss the playoffs by a point or two.

---New York Islanders (68 points, 60 GP): Went 2-0, with road wins at Detroit and Montreal. The Isles have won four of five and are 7-3 in their last 10.

---Boston (68 points, 61 GP): Went 1-1, losing at Anaheim and winning at Los Angeles. The Bruins are 5-1 since Bruce Cassidy took over as coach for Claude Julien.

---Florida (66 points, 59 GP): Went 1-1, beating St. Louis to complete the first 5-0 road trip in franchise history but then returned home to lose to Edmonton. The Panthers hosted Calgary Friday night, and went into that game 8-2 in their last 10.

--Philadelphia (63 points, 60 GP): Went 0-1, losing Wednesday to Washington. The Flyers have their Stadium Series showdown with the Penguins Saturday night in Pittsburgh's Heinz Field and are just 3-6-1 in their last 10.

---Tampa Bay (62 points, 60 GP): Went 1-1, beating Edmonton and losing to Calgary. Still awaiting the return of Steven Stamkos, who is finally back on the ice skating, the Bolts are 5-3-2 in their last 10.

"I definitely checked the scores every night to see what was going on," said Kane. "We're right there in the mix. People have played the same amount of games and we're less than a handful of points back, so we've got as good a shot as anybody."

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