Phil Housley still believes.
"I believe in our system," the Buffalo Sabres coach said. "I believe in our structure. I believe when we play a brand of game that's the right way – we're on top of people and we're not cheating the game and we're doing things for the better part of the team – you can see we're a good hockey team."
Not enough people believed in playing the right way.
"We've just got to be better as a group," forward Nick Baptiste said Thursday as the team digested its 31st-place finish and prepared for its season-ending road trip. "We've got to trust the game plan and be more willing to win for one another. I think that's the biggest thing.
"We've got to understand that individually we're all talented players, but when we're a group it makes us a good hockey team."
The Sabres showed flashes, beating top dogs such as Boston, Washington, Toronto and Friday's opponent, Tampa Bay. But just like a broken clock is right twice a day, the Sabres' moments of synchronicity were fleeting.
The Sabres' longest winning streak was three games, accomplished during the January road trip to western Canada. They promptly lost the next three. They've won two in a row just three times, with a chance to reach four Friday in Tampa and Saturday in Florida.
"We'll have some good nights here and there, and then I feel like we can't really chain them together as consistently as we want," defenseman Casey Nelson said. "The good teams, they win one, two, three four in a row multiple times – multiple, multiple times – through the year. That's what it's about is consistency."
Tampa Bay is an extreme example given its standing as a top-four team in the NHL, but it would laugh at the Sabres' puny three-game winning streak. The Lightning won seven in a row once, five in a row twice and four in a row three times. They've had three three-game runs and four stretches of back-to-back wins.
Meanwhile, the Sabres would lament their injuries, effort and never-ending dilemmas.
"We can look for a lot of excuses, but we just didn't overcome the adversity," Housley said.
The adversity they'll face in Tampa is a team playing for something. The Lightning and Bruins are neck-and-neck for the Atlantic Division title. The winner plays a wild-card team in the opening round. Second place gets the Stanley Cup-contending Maple Leafs.
Clearly, the Lightning will be looking to win while the Sabres are merely playing out the string. They're 2-7 in the last nine games.
"There's no secret we're in last place, and it's a tough place to be," Baptiste said. "But there's only room for improvement. If we can as a group kind of look at ourselves in the mirror and figure out what it is as an individual that you can bring to the table to be better in a team sense, it will help us immensely and improve this team."
As Baptiste said, there's only room for improvement. The Sabres can't get lower than 31st – at least not until the NHL expands to Seattle in a few years.
Housley expects Buffalo to be out of the cellar by then.
"I believe in this organization," he said. "I believe in our management. I believe we're going to turn this thing around.
"It's been a tough year. It has been a very tough year, but I think there's some good people in our group here that are going to be part of that change."
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