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Sabres are sick of slow starts
Early deficits have led to losses during slump

About the only consensus the Buffalo Sabres can come to is their starts are often pitiful. As to why, they still don't know.

It could be the coach's methods. It might be the players' focus. It could be a tendency to act passive. It might be a need for positive reinforcement.

It might be all of those and many more.

No matter the reasons, don't expect a quick disappearance of something that has been present since the early days of the season.

"If we haven't figured it out yet, it's not like it's going to happen overnight," goaltender Ryan Miller said.

The Sabres enter tonight's game against Tampa Bay in St. Pete Times Forum in an extended malaise. They are winless in their last three games, have won only four of their last 15 and are 6-11-4 since Jan. 19. Early deficits and lackluster starts litter the Sabres' loss column, including all three games in their 0-2-1 skid.

"That falls on my shoulders, obviously," coach Lindy Ruff said Wednesday. "A lot of that is just preparation. I'll talk to them again about preparation going into a game. We lacked desperation early in the game. We've eased into games. We've coasted into games, and it's hurt us. It's been different players, but it hasn't been good enough."

Ruff said he conducted a lengthy video session Wednesday and talked about having urgency at opening faceoff. "Motivator" is part of a coach's job description, but Ruff added he can only do so much.

"It's my job to have the team ready to play," he said. "A lot of it is mentally, to get them mentally focused. I've been disappointed with the focus of some players. I've talked to certain players about the preparation going into a game. I have to have them ready.

"The flip side of that is once they've been told, they've got to be ready. What falls down after that is whether you're going to play, whether I've got to start benching guys again. Then the message gets even stronger."

The players surveyed concede it's up to them to be ready. Unanimously, they also concede to no idea why they're often not.

"I really can't tell you," Miller said. "If I knew we'd be doing something, or I'd be doing something. I don't know. I really want to help you on that one."

The problem could be twofold, centered on individuals and the team. Individually, each player has to exit the pregame meetings and dressing room chats eager to play.

"You've got to make sure you've got yourself prepared and know what you've got to do out there to win a hockey game," said center Tim Connolly, who has 15 goals but only two in first periods. "Every guy's got to prepare and get himself ready and know what we're doing out there and go out and do it."

Connolly is not alone in having unbalanced numbers for the Sabres, who are tied for 29th out of 30 teams in first-period goals (49). Five of Thomas Vanek's 22 tallies have come in the opening 20 minutes. Paul Gaustad, Mike Grier and Patrick Kaleta all have nine goals, but each has scored just one in first periods.

Derek Roy leads the Sabres with seven goals in the opening period, followed by Tyler Myers (six).

The game's first goal has been crucial to the Sabres' results. They have opened the scoring in half their 68 games, building a 26-4-4 record. In the half when opponents score first, Buffalo is just 10-18-6.

"You can't keep waiting for something positive to establish your game," Miller said. "You have to play regardless. Maybe that's what we're looking for, it's always waiting for something to go our way to feel like we're playing the right kind of hockey."

Added forward Matt Ellis: "That's something that we need to focus on collectively as a unit and say, 'We need to dictate play.' In order for us to be a good team, we need to dictate. We can't play this 'wait and see,' wait and see what they're going to throw at us. We've got to come out guns ablazing."

Connolly said that's the plan for tonight. Of course, they've said that before.

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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