When the Buffalo Sabres started their run of excellence a couple of seasons ago, they installed a large standings board in their dressing room. It's updated daily, and the players can't help but look at it every time they enter and exit the room.
The board had turned to a source of embarrassment this season. The Sabres started poorly, and the proof was in bold letters. Their name had sunk to the bottom, and the losses were nearly double the wins as the Sabres sat 6-10-1.
The board could have a whole different look and feel when the Sabres return home Tuesday. They have won a season-high four straight to get back to .500, and they go for five in a row tonight when they visit the Washington Capitals in the Verizon Center.
"Winning's a whole different attitude and atmosphere," Sabres forward Andrew Peters said. "It's great to be back in a place where we should have been from the start. I think we're still not satisfied with where we are. It's just a start, hopefully."
A victory would put the team (10-10-1) above even for the first time since it was 3-2 on Oct. 15. But more importantly for the Sabres, it would change the look of that board they see all the time. A win would give them 23 points, moving them from 14th into a tie for ninth in the conference. And that's with fewer games played than nearly every other team in the East.
"You walk by it, and there's disappointment when you look where you're at," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "Our name was tied for the bottom team in the East.
"Now, with a game in hand here or there, if we win the game in hand we're probably back in a playoff spot. We've worked hard through this stretch to get to that point. It's not something you like looking at when it's where it's at, but at the same time it's a good reminder."
"It's embarrassing," left wing Thomas Vanek said. "You take it personally. You come in there, and it's there for a reason, to look at and work hard every day. Any time you're below that .500 mark or at the bottom of the standings, it's nothing you want to have, especially when you have a good team, like we feel we do. Slowly, we're climbing up there, and hopefully we can continue to do that."
The Sabres finally are playing a team tonight that's not in the Northeast Division. They played nine straight against their closest rivals, finishing 5-4 after a 1-4 start.
"To play this stretch over .500 says a lot about where we've come from as a team," Ruff said.
The Capitals are last in the Eastern Conference, but they have won their last two games since firing coach Glen Hanlon. Still, they should have trouble against a team that's clicking in most phases.
"We just have to win the next game and keep this thing going," Sabres captain Toni Lydman said. "We're going in the right direction right now."
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The Sabres took Sunday off because they are in a stretch of four games in six nights. They spent part of the day making travel arrangements for defenseman Andrej Sekera.
Sekera was called up from Rochester to play tonight, and the rookie has played 11 games this season, has one assist and a minus-7 rating.
Henrik Tallinder was lost to a shoulder injury late in the second period of Saturday's win. Ruff said Saturday night the defenseman will be out at least a few days, and there was no further update Sunday.