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Sabres find motivation after the bye week

Mathematically, the possibility still exists for the Buffalo Sabres to make the playoffs.

But 20 points out of the wild-card spot with the fewest points in the Eastern Conference have the Sabres all but assured of sitting out the postseason for the seventh straight season.

So after five days off from the National Hockey League with the Rangers up Thursday night in New York, the Sabres got back to work physically rested and mentally refreshed, but with what to play for exactly?

"I don't think you ever lose your motivation," Sabres defenseman Marco Scandella said. "I do what I love. I can't speak for everyone in this room, but I definitely know that for myself it's always exciting to play hockey. I'm always motivated. I think what getting a break does for you just gives you time to heal. You get to get away from it for a bit so when you come back you're just that much more hungry and excited about it."

The popular assumption is that once out of the playoffs, there's not much to play for outside of pride and individual future contracts.

Scandella, in his eighth NHL season and first with the Sabres, doesn't see it that way at all.

Instead, this is can be a crucial time for the Sabres to establish their identity, to ferment their culture, and set the foundation for the future.

"It's the absolute best thing ever to play in this league so you can't take it for granted," Scandella said. "You just remind yourself every day that we're out of the playoffs but we're still building here, we're building for next year and we have to find a way to turn things around. We can't just say, oh this year's lost and let's just show up for training camp and it's all going to come together for us. I think it's up to us in this group, in this room, to figure things out, to make it happen this year so when we come in next year, we have confidence that we've done it before and have the group that knows how to do it."

Coach Phil Housley echoes those sentiments. The Sabres have to learn how to win and throwing away these last 38 games would be a profound waste of time.

Asked if it's a challenge to motivate players in this situation, Housley said, "No, I don't think so."

"The challenge for us is that we're playing a lot of teams down the stretch here that are in the playoffs or in playoff contention. That's our challenge – see how we measure up day in, day out against really, really good teams. Columbus was a good example. We've got New York who is first in the wild-card spot. They're looking to move up and Dallas is right in the hunt so that's the challenge for us. You see where teams are and watch them and realize it's tough to win."

The Sabres went into their five-day break after a well-played 3-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. They return to action at 7:30 p.m. Thursday playing the Rangers in Madison Square Garden, where New York holds a 16-8-3 record this season. The Sabres come back to Buffalo to host Dallas at 1 p.m. Saturday in KeyBank Center with the Stars holding the top spot in the Western Conference wild-card race.

Buffalo is in no race, other than the race to avoid last place overall in the NHL. The Sabres' 31 points (11-24-9) have them ahead of the Arizona Coyotes of the Western Conference, who have just 28 points (10-28-8).

But there is no heroic run to 30th place in the NHL, so players have to be intrinsically motivated. For veterans like Kyle Okposo, that motivation is not terribly difficult to find.

"You've always got to find motivation somewhere," Okposo said. "I don't think it's that hard. You come to work and you want to be at your best and prove to yourself and prove to everybody that you still have it, that you're a good player. I think we all should take that into consideration.

"You find motivation in team success, personal success. You find it anywhere," Okposo said. "Anytime you come to work and you come to play, you want to be at your best. I really want to get back to the level that I know I'm capable of and being an elite player. I feel like it's been a trying year for me mentally but there's some things I've really liked about my game in the last 20 and I'm really looking forward to keep getting better. I want to get to the place where every night I'm helping my team out."

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