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Sabres have familiar mountain to climb; Buffalo four points out of playoff spot

A lot has changed in a year around the Buffalo Sabres. But it's crazy to look at the NHL standings and realize how stunningly similar things are from last Christmas.

And that's not a good thing.

On Dec. 26, 2010, the Sabres were in Calgary practicing for a game against the Flames. They were 14-17-4, in 12th place in the Eastern Conference with 32 points. They were eight points out of a playoff spot and in 26th overall in the NHL.

Tonight -- Dec. 26, 2011 -- the injury-riddled Sabres open their post-Christmas schedule against the Washington Capitals in First Niagara Center. They're 11th in the East with 35 points. Their record is also slightly better (16-15-3) and they're only four points out of eighth. But they're 23rd overall.

As it turned out last year, the Sabres were the only Eastern Conference team out of the playoffs on Christmas who made it in April (they replaced Atlanta). They're going to have to pull a similar trick again. No one figured this for a team that has spent to the salary cap under new owner Terry Pegula.

"Obviously, we're disappointed," said coach Lindy Ruff. "Injuries aside, you've still got to scrape some wins together."

The Sabres lost last year in Calgary, 5-2, on perhaps their lowest night. It was their first game without gone-for-the-year Derek Roy, Tyler Myers sat out with the flu, Jochen Hecht was burned by Jarome Iginla for a breakaway goal at the end of a long shift and the players had a 15-minute closed door meeting afterward.

But as it turned out, the meeting joined Pegula's purchase of the club as seminal moments of the season. Buffalo won the next night in Edmonton, which started the Sabres on a 29-11-6 run the rest of the way -- including 16-4-4 once Pegula's purchase was finalized.

So when captain Jason Pominville convened a players-only skull session on the ice at the end of practice here Friday after Ruff had spoken, it was easy to think back a year.

The situation is different because the Sabres will have at least seven players out tonight and the status of leading goal scorer Thomas Vanek (shoulder) is tenuous. To turn this season around, the Sabres need to get healthy.

Still, they also need to find the kind spark from their meeting that they seemed to get from the one in Calgary.

"We're going to have to be one of the best teams from here on out to climb in the standings," Pominville said. "We're constantly talking, whether it's just with the leadership group or with the team as a whole. You want to have your message clear and understood. If that was a step in the right direction in Calgary, hopefully this is too and we can get back on track.

Ruff agreed.

"There comes certain times in the season you'd like to take and move ahead," the coach said. "Some of this will coincide with getting some bodies back. Hopefully we can come out and maybe get one back [Brad Boyes]. We may lose one [Vanek]. If you keep subtracting, it's not going to get better. It just gets tougher."

"I haven't seen anything quite like [the run of injuries] but you have to keep the faith and the same things you know give you results," said goaltender Ryan Miller. "We've all had results at one point in our careers. It comes down to working hard and paying attention to details. That's the recipe for anybody in the entire league. There's no secret formula."

The Sabres have been one of the biggest disappointments in the NHL this season, and perhaps only tonight's visitor has been a bigger one.

The Capitals were a 107-point team last year and finished atop the East, but they're 10th this year and just one point ahead of the Sabres. Firing coach Bruce Boudreau and replacing him with former Buffalo nemesis Dale Hunter hasn't changed their fortunes much.

Boudreau was whacked two days after his team's complete no-show here Nov. 26, a 5-1 Sabres win on a night Buffalo was without nine players. Under Hunter, the pest who tormented the Sabres with the Quebec Nordiques of the 1980s and the Caps of the 90s, Washington is just 5-5-1.

The Sabres, meanwhile, have lost three straight for the first time this year and will find out more about Vanek and Boyes today. By NHL rules, teams are not allowed to practice Dec. 24-25.

The Sabres had 42 shots on goal in Thursday's 3-2 loss to Toronto but didn't get any reward for their effort as they gave up two goals in a 62-second span of the second period and over back-checked on the winning goal in the third period by Toronto's Nazem Kadri.

"The work that went into the game, you'll get rewarded for it [most times]," Ruff said. We're just a little bit thin up front. If you continue on the path of trying to outwork your opponent, trying to outshoot your opponent, having your special teams be better, the wins will come."

email: mharrington@buffnews.com