The Buffalo Sabres may have found their irreplaceable player.
The Sabres have won without Daniel Briere. They've won without J.P. Dumont. They've been able to fill holes left by Tim Connolly, Maxim Afinogenov and Paul Gaustad.
But not Jochen Hecht.
The Sabres are 1-3-1 without the left winger. That's the only losing record among forwards who've missed at least two games.
Of course, there's no way the absence of Hecht is the only reason the Sabres are on their longest losing streak in four months. Their system, the defensive and offensive blueprint that received so much credit while they were winning, is off-balance because of bad passes and bad decisions. Connolly is also out, so the forward lines that had been cohesive weapons have lost their pop.
But Hecht may be the linchpin. He's the best defensive forward and he's fourth on the team in shots, areas in which the team has been lacking during its three-game losing skid. Hecht will miss his fourth straight game tonight in HSBC Arena when the Sabres again try to show the Ottawa Senators they belong in the same sentence.
"We've done well as a team without key personnel, but you get in this time of the year where games mean a lot more, you need that personnel in the lineup," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Thursday. "I'm not saying we're going to roll over without [Hecht and Connolly] in there, but you could see when every piece was in there what we did as a team.
"You take both those guys out, you're taking a good chunk of our defensive scheme and our offense. Those two guys killed penalties together, they played on the power play. Jochen was a huge part of Danny's and J.P.'s success."
Hecht and Connolly are still working their injured medial collateral ligaments into shape. Ruff said Hecht, who reinjured his right MCL on March 16, and Connolly, who reinjured his left MCL on March 14, will be out another four to five days.
"We're in no hurry to get them in the lineup to sacrifice their health," Ruff said. "We're gonna work our way through this, and if we have to endure a little more pain we'll endure a little more pain."
The pain of the three-game losing streak started in Ottawa on Saturday. The Sabres were on an eight-game winning streak and had climbed to just one point behind the Senators in the Northeast Division. Ottawa throttled them, 4-2, behind a 49-22 shot advantage.
The Senators have since increased their lead to seven points and the Sabres are one loss away from matching November's season-high four-game slide.
"It's been the one team that has really handled us fairly easily. There's no disguising that," Ruff said. "We need to make a statement."
The Sabres spent their hourlong practice Thursday doing passing drills to help the forwards, one-on-one drills to help the defenseman, and five-on-five drills to sharpen the system.
Part of the Sabres' system is based on accurate passes from the defensemen to the forwards to get out of their zone, and from forwards to forwards in the opponent's zone. Lately, passes have been askew or ill-advised.
Ruff twice whistled an offensive-zone drill dead and screamed instructions because the forwards threw a pass across the middle and had it intercepted. The forwards did it in Wednesday's 4-3 loss to Carolina, and the Hurricanes turned the pass into a three-on-one break and a goal.
"I don't think we've played the system like we used to," defenseman Henrik Tallinder said. "Of course, it's always some individual mistakes here and there. You just have to eliminate all those, and you just try to do all those little things right. We have been a little bit sloppy, a little bit unfocused.
"Our system, it's more of a five-man attack, five-man defense. If one guy takes a night off or something, it disrupts the team, the whole five-man group."