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Sabres losing ground fast ; Offense still stuck in a funk

Isn't a weekend in the Florida sunshine supposed to do wonders for your outlook? Not for the Buffalo Sabres. Back-to-back losses to the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning have left the Sabres in even deeper trouble in the playoff race.

Normally, you're not paying attention to the standings just before Christmas. After all, tonight's visit to HSBC Arena by the Anaheim Ducks is only game 34 in an 82-game season.

But the Sabres are fast falling behind the top eight in the Eastern Conference. In fact, they've slipped to 12th in the East and are eight points behind eighth-place Boston, which suffered a 3-0 loss to the Ducks Monday night.

"It's definitely tough. We dug ourselves a hole right now and we have to get out of it," center Derek Roy said. "It's going to be a tough challenge. We have to get on some streaks. In 10 games, we have to go 7-3 or 8-2 or something like that. We can't 'win one, lose one' anymore."

There are some terrible numbers associated with this team so far. Just eight regulation wins -- only four in the Eastern Conference. Just three wins against No. 1 goaltenders. Just three wins against teams in the East's top eight.

At this point, the Sabres are closer to a top-5 draft pick than they are to the postseason. Where's Jim Mora to howl "Playoffs? Playoffs?" Postseason chatter isn't that realistic unless this team can string wins together.

"You might not be [talking playoffs]," a defiant coach Lindy Ruff said in response to a question Monday. "But I am."

The losses to the Panthers (6-2) and Lightning (3-1) stemmed whatever momentum the Sabres had after going 4-1-1 in their previous six, a run that still put them no better than ninth in the East at the time.

"In our last 10 games again, we're 5-4-1," Ruff said. "With the hole we dug, 5-4-1 isn't good enough. Our situation is we've got to win games. We only have two before Christmas (tonight and Thursday against Florida). We've got to win them both."

"It's a definite step back," winger Mike Grier said of the Florida trip. "We had a chance to get up over .500 on that trip and start building toward getting into the top eight. These are huge points. We can't afford to let any games, any points go by."

Tough to do with this offense. The Sabres have one player in the top 45 in the NHL in goals (Thomas Vanek is tied for 24th), and one in the top 45 in points (Roy is tied for 15th). Roy is tied for seventh in assists and no one else is in the top 100.

The Sabres are 25th in scoring at 2.46 goals per game.

"In 5-on-5 scoring, you might find this hard to believe, but we're in the top half of the league," Ruff proclaimed.

Yep. Hard to believe. While that was true recently, it's no longer the case now. The Sabres have slipped to 17th in 5-on-5 ratio as they've been outscored, 56-55. They're in a 33-25 hole in special teams (and 6-1 in empty-net tallies) as their power play continues to struggle.

Although decent for the last couple of weeks, the power play is only 25th in the league overall and 26th on the road.

"The burden falls on the shoulders of the guys who are supposed to make plays and supposed to score goals and put up points," Roy said. "It's a tough job but you have to go out and do it. When you get a scoring chance, you have to finish it off. Against Florida, we had some 2-on-1s and didn't put them in. Those cost you."

"Our power play, we had good chances in Florida early and didn't put them away and we had three in a row in Tampa and didn't generate anything so it's got to be from the top guys to work at it."

The power play will be missing a major cog tonight as center Tim Connolly is going to be out at least a week because he needs nose surgery to repair multiple fractures he suffered after getting crushed into the boards early in Saturday's game.

"It's bad. We have to get it taken care of," Ruff said. "Everything needs to be reconstructed."

Connolly finished the game wearing a face shield but Ruff said Connolly has to stay off the ice for a period now that he is undergoing surgery.

The Sabres have yet to announce a callup from Portland, but one report said Luke Adam will get the call for the fourth time. He has a goal and an assist in 10 games with the Sabres.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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