The Buffalo Sabres got some sunshine and figured a lot of things out on the road last week. They jumped on opponents, rather than falling into early deficits. The offense was producing and even the power play was clicking.
The result was three straight wins and a sudden stranglehold on the Northeast Division. With 11 games left, the Sabres have a five-point lead on the Ottawa Senators but also have three games in hand. They are nine points ahead of Montreal with two games in hand.
"I feel a lot better," coach Lindy Ruff said after practice Tuesday in HSBC Arena. "We locked into a pretty good style, played hard and got rewarded for it. You have to give the players credit. We talked about different situations. Talked about starts, changed a few things up. I think the power play is starting to turn the corner."
Montreal is in town tonight, Ottawa is here Friday and Tampa Bay comes in Saturday. Win the first two and that's just about it for the division race.
"We definitely don't want to give them any life," winger Jason Pominville said when asked about the Habs and Senators. "Teams are looking up to us and want to catch us. But our confidence is really high right now."
Dig deeper too. The Sabres are just two points behind Pittsburgh and New Jersey for second place in the Eastern Conference. They have two games in hand on the Penguins, one on the Devils.
"It goes both ways," noted rookie Tim Kennedy, who had a breakout trip on left wing with Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek. "If we don't have a good week, we're right back in the fight [with Ottawa and Montreal]."
Until last Thursday's win in Tampa Bay, the Sabres had given up 10 first-period goals in a four-game stretch and fallen behind by two in three of those games.
So what changed?
"We went through a bit of a rough patch and we weren't real happy with our starts," said captain Craig Rivet. "It wasn't just one game either. We just couldn't seem to start the game like we wanted to. You can't make mistakes and get down a couple goals. We just had to calm down and focus.
"Guys were uptight, a little nervous about making mistakes and you have to realize it's a game of mistakes. But when teams are focused and willing to help each other out, you're going to go in the right direction. We've kind of solidified that right now."
Cracked teammate Henrik Tallinder from an adjacent locker: "Wow, what a good answer."
Sure was. The Sabres were dominant much of the time against Tampa Bay, Florida and Carolina but figure to be much more severely tested the next two games. And, in fact, the remaining schedule includes seven division games; Buffalo is 9-4-4 within the Northeast thus far.
"This week is just as important as last week," Ruff said. "We went on the road and we wanted to look to create a little bit of space. Now we're back home and don't want to take last week for granted. We worked hard to get a little bit of distance between us. . . . We know that past this week we're back on the road again."
Every day as they come to the rink, the players walk by a board listing the standings as they head into their workout facilities. Some ignore the board, some stop and take a peek.
But no one can deny it's a better feeling to see their line near the top rather than dealing with the futile run at eighth place that has marked the last two Aprils.
"It's a good feeling that guys have put in the work and the sacrifices to get better as individuals and as a team," Rivet said. "But you can't look ahead, can't really look at the standings.
"Those things will play themselves out. When we're playing good hockey and worried about the way we play and compete, we're a tough team to play against."
SABRES VS. CANADIENS: Faceoff: 7:30 p.m. HSBC Arena TV: MSG Radio 550-AM Season Series: Sabres, 3-0-1