In some ways, coaching a hockey team is like raising a toddler. Lindy Ruff could prevent the Buffalo Sabres from bumping their heads, but at what price? They would continue wobbling down the same path and eventually suffer an accident much more serious.
It can be a delicate balance over an 82-game season, but over the past week Ruff had the luxury of sitting back and seeing if this young, ever-evolving team was capable of picking itself up. They were fearless during an eight-game winning streak, but their true character will be revealed now that they've lost five straight.
Ruff waited for them to mature for a few games, but he's witnessed enough over the past week and was preparing to intervene. He's growing increasingly annoyed and beginning to bark. He's threatening players with ice time, revisiting the bad ole' days when the Sabres bumbled and stumbled into an extended offseason.
"I understand that our game, we're a little bit like gunslingers," Ruff said. "I've said that, but I thought we had some lazy mistakes. I'll put up with it [but] we've got players that don't want to compete defensively. Somebody's going to have to pay the price. They can come out of the lineup. They can sit. I haven't had to say that all year."
The Sabres offered a few signs they were ready to pull out of their weeklong funk Saturday night, but they also had their share of passengers in a 5-4 loss to the Boston Bruins. It doesn't get any easier when they play the New York Rangers tonight in Madison Square Garden.
A few players could be forced to the press box. The Sabres were expected to have Jay McKee back in the lineup after he suffered a broken nose. Tim Connolly was hoping to return last week from a sprained knee. He might be available tonight. Jochen Hecht is still a few days away.
The Sabres need them.
Buffalo is learning the hard way how the intensity picks up late in the regular season as teams gear up for the postseason. Games start getting tighter and more physical. Mistakes are more costly, and goaltending becomes more critical. If the Sabres are going anywhere in the playoffs, they need to improve in all areas.
"We better start turning things around," defenseman Brian Campbell said. "We're getting near the end of the season, and things change. It's not the same hockey you're playing in December. It's different. It's playoff hockey. We're still playing December hockey."
Campbell owned up for a critical mistake when he failed to tie up Glen Murray, who slipped behind him and converted a cross-ice pass that had little business reaching its destination. Toni Lydman was exposed on another play. Maxim Afinogenov had three assists but had a key giveaway. J.P. Dumont failed to bear down on a scoring chance in the opening shift. The list is as long as it is littered.
The Sabres, who held a short players-only meeting after the loss in Boston, have reiterated numerous times that they need to emphasize the little things. They're still struggling to make simple plays. Their power play, once their most dangerous weapon, has been strangely silent during the losing streak.
"We have to regroup as a team and realize what we can do to help the team more," Briere said. "It starts with me. We're all responsible. Some games, it's this guy. The next game, it's somebody else. It's not three or four guys. It's the whole team. We don't have a team that can afford to make mistakes. We need everybody going."
Buffalo must contend with Jaromir Jagr tonight, who has been dominant all season. Jagr leads the league with 51 goals and 107 points. He's currently on an eight-game point streak in which he's amassed eight goals and seven assists. He has two goals and two assists in three games against the Sabres this season. Buffalo has a 2-0-1 edge entering the final matchup.
"He's on fire, but we've had success against them," Campbell said. "We've played them pretty well. We know what we have to do, and we're a good enough hockey club to do it. It's not making mistakes. We're turning pucks over, and it's costing us. Every mistake is happening. It's the whole team in different situations."
The Rangers also have been streaky over the past seven weeks. They won seven straight games starting in February, lost six straight, won three straight and lost three straight. They're coming off a shootout loss to Tampa Bay and were in a virtual dead heat with Philadelphia for first place in the Atlantic Division.
Buffalo appears locked into fourth or fifth place in the Eastern Conference with 12 games remaining in the regular season. The prize for fourth is home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Sabres more than likely will play the Rangers or Flyers in the first round, so tonight's game is important on several fronts.
The biggest, of course, is ending their slump.
"We can't change what happened in the last five games," Briere said. "No matter how long we sit here, think and talk about it, we can't change it. We have to move forward now. What's done is done. We can't look back anymore."