The Buffalo Sabres threw away their 1999 calendars this morning. They were ready for a fresh approach as they greeted the year 2000.
"It's a new year, a new century, a new millennium," Sabres center Brian Holzinger said. "A lot of the guys in here want to start the year on the right foot at home with a rival."
The Sabres open 2000 tonight, when they host the Toronto Maple Leafs in Marine Midland Arena (7:05, Empire, 104.1 FM). On a psychological level at least, the New Year couldn't have come at a better time for Buffalo.
The Sabres are coming off two dreary performances. They were manhandled by New Jersey in a 4-1 defeat on Monday. Then the Sabres saw virtually everything go wrong and every break go against them in a 7-2 loss to Detroit on Tuesday. Buffalo set team records for fastest four goals allowed (1 minutes, 55 seconds) and fastest six goals allowed (8:36) against the Red Wings.
As the Sabres go into the first part of this home-and-home series with the Maple Leafs -- the teams will be in Toronto on Monday night -- they need to avoid letting the Detroit loss snowball into a streak that could drop the team out of playoff position.
"It (the Red Wings game) is something we've definitely thrown out. We haven't made mention of since the day after the game," coach Lindy Ruff said. "We dealt with it. We watched some video on why we broke down in different areas. We made some bad plays. We made some good plays, too, that got overlooked, but when you make enough mistakes against a team with that much talent you're going to get beat."
Forward Curtis Brown added, "It doesn't matter what you're doing -- hockey, life, business. Everyone is going to have their share of hard times. It's how you deal with those. If you deal with it the right way, it makes you strong. . . . We can't talk about it any more. We just have to go do it. In the business we're in, there are more than 80 games. If you let one kill you, it's not going to help your track record down the stretch."
If a hockey team is going to take a new approach into the New Year, the easiest method is to switch around the line combinations. Ruff threw some odd ones together during Friday's practice in Amherst. Wayne Primeau was with Geoff Sanderson and Maxim Afinogenov, something of a reward for Primeau's fine play against the Red Wings. Primeau had about five scoring opportunities in one of his best games of the season.
"He's going to get added ice time," Ruff said about Primeau. "We'll use him on our power play and in front of the net. He'll play in one of the top three lines. He should get 15 or 20 minutes. He did play extremely well. I even talked to him about the reason why. We've really stepped up the workouts for the guys that don't play. Typically, the guys that haven't played have come back and skated the best of anyone on the team."
Then there's the case of Brown, who was a winger Friday with Michael Peca and Erik Rasmussen. Brown hasn't played wing in a couple of years, but he could be one in tonight's game.
"If you look at Curtis Brown, who spends a lot of time in his own end, if he didn't have to play center and have the responsibility of being down low and always coming from behind, maybe he's a guy who could score more goals if you got him on the wing," Ruff said. "That puts added responsibility on a guy like Primeau and Brian Holzinger. There was even some thought to putting (Erik) Rasmussen in the middle. . . . We have to use our size a little better, use Rasmussen and Primeau."
"The bottom line is we haven't been scoring," Brown said. "We need to juggle the lines up, and try to get something to work. Two goals a game isn't going to win hockey games on a consistent basis. We feel we have the right personnel to get more than two goals a game. Maybe this little juggle will be the answer. Right now we're open to any suggestions."
The Sabres have averaged 1.7 goals per game over the last 12 games, and that's not likely to be enough against a Toronto team that is second in the conference in goals. Buffalo also has to solve the defensive problems that popped up earlier in the week.
"We had been playing good defensively," Sabres defenseman Alexei Zhitnik said. "Before the last couple of games, we had been allowing less than two goals per game. We had a chance to win every game. But the last couple of games, we allowed 11 goals. You can't win games like that. Against the Maple Leafs, we have to play tight hockey and score when we get the chance."
Toronto might be looking at this home-and-home series as a chance to deal a big psychological blow to their geographic rivals to the south. Toronto has a 16-point edge on the Sabres in the Northeast Division, and two wins might permanently bury any thoughts Buffalo might have about catching the Leafs this season.
The Sabres can't afford to worry about the divisional standings right now. Their main concern is putting together a winning streak.
"Obviously we have all the teams above us in our sights, but we can't look too far ahead," Sanderson said. "We're in a little bit of a rut right now. We win a couple, then lose a couple. For us, it's a matter of getting more consistency with our wins. When we get hot, we just fall off dramatically.
"We're pretty embarrassed after our last two outings. We have a great opportunity with Toronto coming in here -- top of the division. It's a great chance for us to redeem ourselves after two poor performances."