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Stafford pulling the trigger ; Turnaround season brings consistent play

Drew Stafford is good buddies with Kyle Okposo, a forward for the New York Islanders, and planned to spend part of the Buffalo Sabres' weekend on Long Island catching up on what's happened since their summer together. There wouldn't have been much hockey talk for Okposo, who had shoulder surgery during the preseason and has yet to play.

Stafford, on the other hand, has had an eventful fall and winter. The right winger formerly known for disappearing has become one of the Sabres' most consistent producers. He's learned to shoot more. He's become a power-play contributor. He's overcome a significant injury and played through minor ones.

It's a quality turnaround, but Stafford didn't expect Okposo or any other friends to pat him on the back.

"They're not really going to give you too much credit," Stafford said. "It's more ripping on each other."

It would've been easy to tear Stafford apart like a brittle leaf in prior seasons, and folks in Sabreland certainly took their pull. So far this season, most of the ripping has been courtesy of Stafford's stick as he shoots pucks at and by goaltenders.

Stafford heads into the Sabres' four-game week as the team's most consistent player. He has 15 goals and 23 points in 29 games. He's played particularly well since returning from a shoulder injury Dec. 15, with 10 goals and 13 points in 14 outings.

"So far, so good," Stafford said. "Now I'm not thinking about anything that's happened. It's all forward thinking."

Looking forward, then, Stafford and the Sabres have a busy schedule. They host Montreal on Tuesday, travel to Boston on Thursday, host the Islanders on Friday and return to Long Island on Sunday. If this season's form holds, Stafford will reach the score sheet during the run.

Stafford's longest goal drought this season was a three-game stretch at the end of October. He's been scoring nearly every other game, and since he was blanked in Saturday's 5-3 loss to the Isles, he's already due to find the net.

Again, that's if form holds. Until this season, Stafford was wildly inconsistent. It created long droughts. He had 16- and 15-game scoreless skids last season, which led to a playoff benching, a long chat with coaches and management, and a summer of strenuous workouts with Okposo and New Jersey's Zach Parise.

"We all had a really good summer together," Stafford said. "It was kind of refreshing."

The work likely would've been for naught if Stafford hadn't heeded coach Lindy Ruff's other offseason edict: focus on shooting. Stafford averaged 2.55 shots per game last year. He's at 3.24 this season, and his 16 percent scoring rate is tops on the team. His six power-play goals rank second.

"He's got a great shot," Ruff said. "Shoot it. I think in the past he might've hung on a little bit longer. I think now he's got the confidence that he's going to shoot the puck as much as he can. It's a great tool he's got.

"You try to play a player to his strengths, and his strength is the offensive side of it," Ruff added. "Not unlike a lot of young players, they have ups and downs, and then it hits them four, five years in. First and foremost, he's held himself accountable. He's not looking at the outside saying, 'Boy, it was this or that. It was me, and I'm going to make a difference.' "

Stafford has so far. The important thing for the free agent-to-be is to keep it up. He'll need to stay consistent if the Sabres hope to improve their 11th-place standing in the Eastern Conference.

"There's always ups and downs with the season," he said. "It's not always going to be 100 percent positive. There's going to be adversity. There's going to be challenges. It's just a matter of how you react to it.

"Instead of being negative, trying to find excuses, trying to point fingers, [be positive]. That's definitely one thing that's happened with myself and this team. We're not going away. We're going to keep going."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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