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Sabres add up long division stretch

Welcome to March in November.

Twelve games into the season, the Buffalo Sabres insist this is no time to panic. But when the team embarks on an unusual nine-game run exclusively against Northeast Division clubs beginning tonight in Montreal, the task is clear: win now to start closing the gap in the standings or spend the rest of the season fighting for your playoff lives.

A busy week starts against the Canadiens in the Bell Centre. The Boston Bruins come to HSBC Arena on Wednesday night and the Toronto Maple Leafs are here Friday. The Sabres then jet to Boston for a Saturday night showdown that will be their second there in 10 days.

By the time this stretch finishes Nov. 24 back in Montreal, the Sabres will have met the Habs four times, the Bruins and Ottawa Senators twice each and the Maple Leafs once.

"The way the teams inside this division are playing, this is real important," coach Lindy Ruff said. "All these teams are over .500. These are big games."

"At the end of the season, you always look back at games where you say, 'We should have had this one, this could have happened there,' " center Derek Roy said. "You've got to take these points when you can because they're very crucial at the end of the season."

Last year's Presidents' Trophy winners are behind a huge eight-ball just a month into the season.

The Sabres are last in the Northeast -- and entering Sunday were already 11 points behind first-place Ottawa. They're tied for 12th in the Eastern Conference, and for 25th overall in the 30-team league. In fact, they're one of eight teams with just five wins.

"Last year we prided ourselves on not losing two in a row and this year, we've put ourselves in a bit of a bind early," admitted goaltender Ryan Miller. "But the sky isn't falling yet. It's not something where you can say we've done everything we could. We haven't done everything we can do to correct this.

"The coaches are trying to get us the information and we need to process it. We need to execute. We need to be a team. I see forwards doing one thing, [defensemen] doing another. We've got to work together as a unit."

Ruff pulled no punches after Friday's 4-2 clunker against Florida in the arena, accurately dissecting his team's second-period collapse. Miller didn't play in that one but should be back in the nets tonight and Ruff said he needs to lift his game.

"He's been average at times and real good at times," Ruff said. "But it's been like that for the whole team. We just keep having patches of inconsistency, whether it's the forward lines, the defensemen having a tough night or the goaltending.

"Ryan has made some great saves but it seems like you have that one goal a game you'd like to have back. It's such a tough league for scoring goals and there's so many tight games that to give up one can make it tough."

Miller, who allowed one brutal goal in the second period Thursday in Boston and was then beaten by a fluky overtime tally, agreed the Sabres' resurgence is going to have to start with him. Miller's numbers to date are decidedly mediocre (a 3.18 goals-against average and .891 save percentage).

"Right now we're not playing the kind of hockey it takes to win -- from the crease out," he said. "I'm not playing well enough, that's for sure. There are situations I usually take care of but it's a long season and I didn't forget how to play hockey over the summer.

"I'm still here. I've made some mistakes and a lot of guys the same thing is happening. You just have to forgive yourself, move on, play hockey without feeling sorry for yourself, moping around or saying it's hard."

The Sabres played solid stretches in Boston, but badly regressed Friday. Defensive zone coverage was a huge eyesore in a second period that saw Florida collect 17 shots on backup goalie Jocelyn Thibault and score three times.

"We were bad, simple as that," said November captain Toni Lydman.

"We think we're working hard but we're watching video and it looks like we're not working hard," Roy said. "We're just not doing the things that made us successful the past two years."

***

Ruff said defenseman Nolan Pratt (groin injury) is day to day and Jaroslav Spacek (shoulder) will probably sit out tonight. He's skating to do some conditioning work and avoiding heavy contact. The Sabres recalled defenseman Mike Weber from Rochester on Sunday.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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