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Belief in team play nearly nonexistent for Sabres

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.

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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.

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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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