The questions and the doubt that have surrounded the Buffalo Sabres for the last month have been couched by one fact: They have been able to tread water in the Eastern Conference standing.
That's starting to change. After keeping ahold of spots 6-8 in the East in the face of their injury epidemic, the Sabres slipped out of the playoff picture for the first time this season with Tuesday's 4-1 loss in Ottawa.
The Sabres are now 10th in the East, although an optimist would point out they're just two points behind sixth-place New Jersey. A pessimist would point out that they're just as close to 13th as they are to sixth.
The Sabres have lost two straight heading into their final pre-Christmas game, tonight in the Air Canada Centre against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but can move back ahead of the Leafs with a win in regulation.
"You definitely don't want to get behind," winger Drew Stafford said after practice Wednesday in the ACC. "It's so close that if you start stringing together losses, you're going to end up at the bottom. Last year we were in last place [with a 3-9-2 record on Nov. 5] and we crawled out of that. You don't want to do that.
"You want to make sure you're doing the right things habits-wise and string together some wins. It's tough to do that with all the injuries but that's part of it."
Injuries have been a trouble spot for the Sabres with seven or eight players slated to be out tonight, but the baffling inconsistency of their regulars is another major issue.
Save for Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville, few regulars are putting up points. On defense, Jordan Leopold and Mike Weber struggled mightily in Ottawa and were victimized by two goals.
The biggest lightning rods for criticism have been Stafford and center Derek Roy. When they broke down the ice on a 2-on-1 with the Sabres short-handed Tuesday late in the second period of a 1-1 game, it looked like a prime chance for a key goal to produce their first lead.
Instead, Stafford dawdled and tried a pass to Roy when he was nearly on top of Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson. The pass was blocked and the Senators broke away for a good chance.
After practice Wednesday, Stafford and coach Lindy Ruff had a skull session on the ice that was clearly about that play. Stafford had 31 goals last year -- 18 coming in seven games -- but has just six in 32 games this year.
"He said to me, 'I don't know why I didn't shoot it,' " Ruff said. "He lacks some confidence when it comes to scoring and he's passed up some good opportunities. His frustration level is pretty high. I said, 'Those are situations you wouldn't have passed up. You know you're a shooter.' When things are going well, it's automatic. When things are not going well, you start second-guessing."
"Last year probably I would have put that through the net," Stafford admitted. "Now it's one of those things where I thought I could maybe make a little pass to Derek instead of going straight down and driving and finding a hole and putting it in. I can't do anything about it now but work to get in that position again and next time pull the trigger."
Stafford has 11 goals and 23 points in 27 career games against Toronto and is one of several Sabres with career success against them. As a whole, the team has dominated its QEW rival with a 30-12-1 record since the lockout that includes Friday's 5-4 win in First Niagara Center.
The 30 wins are Buffalo's most against any team in that period and the Leafs have always served as goaltender Ryan Miller's personal panacea.
Miller is 25-11-0 against them with a 2.33 goals-against average. His win total, shutouts (4) and save percentage (.926) against the Leafs are his best against any opponent, and the 25 wins lead all active goalies against Toronto.
"We want to win games. We need to win games," Ruff said. "You have to find a way to fight through even key injuries and take advantage of situations in a game to win. We've been able to tread water. That [Ottawa] game put us a bit under. We need to bounce back and win a game. It's a tough league. Every team deals with injuries. We're dealing with ours and you still have to win."