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Sabres building confidence

It’s a bit cliché, but that doesn’t diminish the truth of the saying for Tyson Strachan.

Winning is a habit. Losing is a disease.

“It’s something that you learn. You learn how to win. I think that’s important for us,” the Buffalo Sabres defenseman said.

The team has had starts and fits when it comes to playing a solid hockey game, let alone a winning one.

But patience has started to pay off. The Sabres enter tonight’s game in First Niagara Center against the Winnipeg Jets (7 p.m., MSG, Radio 550 AM) on a three-game winning streak.

Those are three wins in regulation, mind you. The last time that happened was March 23-27, 2012. Stringing those wins together has been an important part of the Sabres rebuilding effort, helping a young group learn the building blocks of winning habits.

“It’s not a one-off win. It’s something we built,” Strachan said. “We built it on good fundamentals and bought into the system – and get a few wins under your belt, now you have that confidence you can do it night in, night out.”

Confidence. That’s the word uttered over and over in the Sabres dressing room.

Winning can cure a lot of ills, but for the Sabres wins don’t cover the blemishes. Instead, they’re a reward for having patience with the process.

“I think we’re doing some of the little things better,” Sabres forward Matt Moulson said. “Getting our forecheck going and creating chances, and goals are going in. We’re getting production from a lot of different guys. Timely goals. That and goaltending. We’re playing better in our defensive zone. We have a lot to improve, but I think we’re doing a better job of getting out cleaner and that’s creating offense.”

Sound familiar? When the losses piled up, forechecking, defensive responsibility and getting cleanly out of the zone were points of emphasis. Those were the areas needing vast improvement for the Sabres.

It takes players, especially a group of new faces and young talent, time to buy into the new system. It also takes the coaching staff time to find the right combinations.

“What we were doing three weeks ago, four weeks ago, it just wasn’t working,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. “It doesn’t mean we weren’t attempting to do it. We’re just trying to find our footing. Everybody trying to find their niche, and when you’re rebuilding a team – especially when we’ve got two kids (Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov) on the back end and Zemgus Girgensons, people forget he’s only 20 years old – it took us a little while to get our footing down.

“Right now the biggest thing is now they feel confidence within their own ability and they’re playing with a lot of confidence.”

As players bought into the system and became more comfortable, the team started to show progress in key problem areas. When it worked once, and the young team was rewarded with a win, it was a little easier to replicate. Another win made it a little bit easier.

“I think we have guys who come to the rink a little more relaxed, a little more confident,” Moulson said. “You know it’s fun to win. Guys see that and that makes them want to do the right things more often.”

Patience with the process isn’t easy and the process doesn’t end with three straight wins.

The Sabres are still searching for line combination answers. The only certainty at the moment is the top line – Moulson, Girgensons and Tyler Ennis.

“I think we identified the other day we have one so-called No. 1 line and then three lines,” Nolan said.

And while Jhonas Enroth is starting to emerge as the No. 1 goaltender, he hasn’t sewn up the position just yet.

The Winnipeg Jets come to Buffalo after playing Tuesday night in Columbus. The Jets headed into that game with the second-worst scoring offense in the NHL, averaging 1.96 goals per game. The worst goals per game average in the league? That still belongs to the Sabres at 1.62.

This win streak has made a difference, however, in the Sabres attitude and approach. It’s something veteran Josh Gorges has noticed, even as he missed the last four games with a knee injury.

“You’re seeing a group that’s right now excited to be out there for the games,” Gorges said. “From what I can see, the hesitation has gone away. We’re not sitting back, waiting for things to happen, to see what the other team’s going to do and then try to chase the game after that. We’re aggressive.

“If you go in there and you’re not sure about your own game, about the team game, you’re late because you hesitate. You think. This game moves too fast, and if you’re half a second behind, you’re chasing the game. When we’re confident … things just happen naturally. When you have a little bit of success, you can build off that and continue to ride that wave.”


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