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Sabres look for second-half surge ; Health and scoring high on wish list

Drew Stafford acknowledged what was obvious as the Buffalo Sabres prepared to head home from the desert.

"Yeah, the boys are feeling good," Stafford said.

The atmosphere is sure to be jovial when a team is unbeaten in five straight, as the Sabres are with their 4-0-1 run. The streak comes just as the Sabres hit the midpoint of their season, with 41 games down and 41 to go. They've finally got their points percentage back to .500 (18-18-5), a place it hasn't been since Game Two.

"You're feeling great when you win games, especially with the start we had here and where we're at in the standings," said Stafford, whose team is 10th in the Eastern Conference and 23rd in the NHL with 41 points. "It's desperate for us now. We can't wait to get hot. We need to get hot now and keep it rolling."

The Sabres know their second half will need to be better than the first if they want to be a playoff team. The opening 41 games were marred by long winless streaks, shoddy scoring, middling special teams, subpar goaltending, defensive breakdowns and injuries to key players.

The unbeaten streak, which they'll try to extend Tuesday at home against Philadelphia, has them hoping those troubles are gone.

"We really got caught a little behind the eight ball early in the season, but we're back to .500," defenseman Jordan Leopold said. "We've been talking about it, and we're here. Now we've really got to collect some points and get on a roll here.

"We talked about a good start to the new year, looked at it as kind of restarting our season. This is big. We need points. We'll climb back into that eighth position, and we're creeping. But we've got our work cut out for us. We've got to keep everybody healthy going forward."

The Sabres likely can't withstand another key injury. Center Derek Roy was lost for the season in late December, and he remains the team's top point-producer. His 35 points are four more than second-place Thomas Vanek and a whopping 11 over third-place Leopold. The absence of another top scoring threat would trend the Sabres toward impotent.

They've had enough trouble lighting the lamp as it is. Though they've averaged 3.5 goals in the six games since Roy suffered his quad injury, the Sabres still rank just 18th in the NHL at 2.66 goals per game. Their power play ranks 17th at 16.9 percent, though it's connected in four straight games and nine of 12.

"Our special teams are gaining ground," coach Lindy Ruff said. "Our offense, for the most part, has been better. Our key players are starting to play better. I think that's what I want to see. I want to see our best players be our best players for us in the absence of Derek."

The production by Stafford, Leopold and Vanek was one of the team's bright spots during the first half.

Stafford was a threat whenever healthy. He scored the overtime winner Saturday against Phoenix, giving him 14 goals and 22 points in 26 games. Leopold has been the blue line's biggest weapon with 10 goals and 14 assists. Vanek has scored 16 times, including eight with the man advantage, and is on pace to again top 30 goals after failing to reach the mark last season.

Vanek and Stafford have helped in shootouts, too, with the Sabres tying for the league high with four victories while losing none. The extra points should matter in what figures to be a tight conference race.

The bad has outweighed the good, as the Sabres' 23rd-ranked points percentage would suggest. They have allowed 2.9 goals per game, tied for 21st in the 30-team league. They are 22nd in one-goal games with a 9-7-5 record, and that includes their 4-0 mark in shootouts.

"I think altogether as a group what we'd like to make sure in the next half here is if we're finding we're in tough times, we find ways to win through just hard work and perseverance," Stafford said.

There have been plenty of personnel dips.

Goaltender Ryan Miller and defenseman Tyler Myers are nowhere near duplicating their trophy-winning seasons. Miller, who missed time with hip and groin injuries, hit the midway point 24th in goals-against average (2.62) and 21st in save percentage (.913). Myers has 16 points and a minus-11 rating, well off his 48-point, plus-13 showing as a rookie.

They're hardly alone. Secondary scoring has been nearly non-existent, with Paul Gaustad (three goals), Mike Grier (two), Nathan Gerbe (one) and Rob Niedermayer (none) suffering through production woes.

"Hopefully, we can get a few more goals out of our third and fourth lines," Grier said. "Right now we're putting a lot of pressure on our power play and our top six, and we need the rest of the guys to chip in down the stretch here to really make a run at it.

"We've just got to be more consistent every game. We can't keep going win one, lose one. That's not going to get us anywhere. That's not going to get us in the playoffs. We've got to be more consistent every night with our effort and our play with the system."


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