SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Buffalo Sabres want to earn the title of Stanley Cup contender during the final three weeks of the season. Anyone paying attention knows they have a lot of work to do.
The Sabres might be the most underwhelming first-place team in sports. They seem to have more critics than backers. Their flaws are examined way more thoroughly than their attributes.
The interesting thing is, the folks in Blue and Gold can't argue with the negative vibe.
"I fully understand," captain Craig Rivet said Friday. "I somewhat agree. If I was a hockey fan watching their team underachieve, which sometimes in certain parts of the year we have done that . . . we want to be the best, and our fans want us to be the best. They understand the game here in Buffalo. They know that we can be better as a hockey team. I think the guys in this room know that we can be better."
The Sabres, who hold a five-point lead in the Northeast Division, will attempt to extend that tonight when they visit the Florida Panthers. Even if they win their second straight, it won't be enough to change people's opinions. The observers would simply assume another slump was soon to follow.
There's really only one way to change that outlook in the final 13 games.
"By winning," coach Lindy Ruff said. "Just by winning.
"We're sitting in a good spot now. We've got a month to move ahead and be a team that people will look at and say, 'Boy, they can seriously challenge to win it.' That is only on our shoulders to play that way and be able to get a few things together in our game that will convince people that these guys really have a good chance."
Two months of inconsistency have hurt the Sabres' standing. They were 30-11-6 after beating Phoenix on Jan. 18. Since then, they are 7-11-4, with extended winless streaks mixed with a couple of winning spurts.
"When you go through a stretch where we basically played .500 hockey for a long period of time, we're creating more critics than we are more people looking at us like we're a contender," Ruff said after practice in BankAtlantic Center.
The Sabres, then, accept the fact they've brought the pessimism on themselves.
"We get that once in a while because we do have spells of inconsistency," right wing Patrick Kaleta said. "We've made a lot of progress from last year, and this year we've got to keep building and building and become that championship team that we want to be. If we're rolling and we're playing hard, then I think we'll be a pretty scary team.
"We've set a goal for ourselves to be a championship team, and in order to do that we've got to take every game and keep building off it. We can't have lackadaisical games where we go out there and, 'Ah, we'll play 58 good minutes and give up three goals right in the beginning.' We've got to start the game right off the bat and play a full 60 minutes, and if we do that we'll progress."
Thursday's 6-2 victory in Tampa Bay was a good start. They scored early and often, defended well and received stellar goaltending. That's why they are expected to do it more.
"We've shown spurts of a top team, a championship team, and we've shown spurts of a team that has struggled at times with being consistent," Rivet said. "Right now, moving into the end of the season here, we want to continue to get better."
If they can, the buzz might build by the time the postseason starts.
"You play a game like you did [Thursday] night, and you look around and people say, 'Wow, that team played well,' " Ruff said. "By playing well, having the teams you play talk about how hard that team worked or how well they played or how tough it was to play against them, that usually gives you an indication whether you can push up into that [Cup contender] group."