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A quarter into season, Sabres still a work in progress

There is improvement and there is a lot of work ahead.

Pretty easy way to look at the Buffalo Sabres’ season as it concludes the first quarter with Monday night’s visit by the St. Louis Blues to First Niagara Center.

The Sabres are 8-10-2 through 20 games and have doubled their point total at this stage from last year’s 4-15-1 record. They’re much better defensively than in the past and have puck possession and faceoff numbers far from the dregs of the league that they’ve been the last two years.

But their offense continues to struggle. With 42 goals in their 20 games, the Sabres are averaging just 2.1 per contest and that’s 27th in the 30-team NHL. It would still only put them on pace for 172 goals – or the third-fewest in franchise history behind the last two years.

The Sabres are currently in an 0-2-2 rut while playing teams exclusively from the Western Conference and have dropped into a tie for last place in the Atlantic Division.

Once 8-8, they failed to climb above .500 for the first time since the opening two games of the 2013 lockout season. For the time being, it’s cooled some of the murmurs about playoff contention.

Here’s a look at some current topics surrounding the club at the quarter pole:

Eichel’s first slump: Jack Eichel is scoreless in his last five games and was particularly frustrated after Saturday’s 3-0 loss in Dallas for failing to convert three quality chances, two when he cut around the Dallas defense and got in alone on Stars goalie Antti Niemi.

“I have a long way to go,” Eichel said pointedly. “I have not been too happy with a lot of my peformances so far this season. We’re 20 games into the year. I think I have a lot more to give in all areas. I don’t think this is nearly where I should be.

“I can do more. Scoring, faceoffs, power play, penalty kill. Everything.”

Eichel has six goals, two off the NHL rookie lead, and leads first-year players with 67 shots on goal. But he is just ninth in points with 10, has only one goal and three points in nine road games and is carrying an ugly minus-6 rating.

Eichel admitted he’s still in his infancy of dealing with the NHL’s schedule grind. Remember, getting to the 20-game mark in college is usually past the halfway mark of the season. At Boston University last season, in fact, Eichel’s Terriers played 41 games – and that was with making it all the way to the championship of the Frozen Four.

“It’s long, quite a schedule,” Eichel said of the NHL transition. “You’re playing a few games a week. You’re on the ice every day and it can be tough to manage your body and be up to play every game. But that’s part of a being a pro and I’m still adjusting to it. It’s something I need to get better at and get more comfortable with.”

Eichel isn’t alone: Many of the team’s experienced forwards are struggling to score, as Ryan O’Reilly has three of Buffalo’s four goals over the last four games. Evander Kane, Brian Gionta, Marcus Foligno and the injured Zemgus Girgensons all have one goal for the season. Tyler Ennis has no goals in nine games, Matt Moulson none in eight. Johan Larsson and David Legwand have yet to score at all.

“We have to capitalize on our chances and that’s a big thing,” Moulson said. “We’re working. Maybe a play here and there by all of us is a difference right now. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We have to keep working, keep getting better each day. That’s what you have to concentrate on, making sure we’re improving as a team and individuals.”

Ennis, a 20-goal man each of the last two seasons, is stuck at three and has not scored in nine games. He’s also having a terrible time with turnovers. Asked after Saturday’s loss if he senses that Ennis’ game is completely out of sync at this point, coach Dan Bylsma pondered the thought, gave a small smile and then said simply, “I think you just answered the question.”

The schedule: Central Division teams entered Sunday 62-34-10 outside the division so it’s not in the Sabres’ favor to be in the midst of a run against them. The Sabres lost two games to league-leading Dallas last week and suffered a shootout loss Thursday in St. Louis. The Blues are now in town for a rematch and Buffalo also plays Nashville twice this week.

“This is the toughest division in hockey,” said O’Reilly, who knows first-hand from his days with Colorado. “Look at the teams and the points they have. There’s never an easy game in this division. These teams are big and strong and that makes it a tough swing for us.”

Goaltending: In the wake of the Opening Night injury to Robin Lehner, Chad Johnson and rookie Linus Ullmark have held the fort better than anyone could have expected. Johnson’s November numbers in the wake of Saturday’s loss remain strong: 1-1-1 with a 1.62 goals-against average and a .943 save percentage. Ullmark has put up a .926 save percentage in his eight games.

That panic that seemed to take hold outside the locker room when Lehner went down has proved to be unfounded.

“People can think what they want but for myself there was no panic,” Johnson said. “It was an opportunity. Linus has come in and played well. We’re just here to do the best that we do and that’s stopping the puck and giving the team a chance to win.”

Special teams: It was the theme of the road trip as the Sabres went 0 for 3 with a two-man advantage – and didn’t get a shot on goal in two of the opportunities. The power play as a whole has been pretty good, ranked eighth in the league at 21.5 percent, but has hurt the club’s momentum of late. The penalty kill has been consistently poor, ranked 29th overall and dead last on the road.

Looking ahead: The Sabres went 3-7 in the season’s first 10 games and improved to 5-3-2 in the second set. Bylsma was disappointed, however, at not getting Saturday’s game.

“At game 20, this would have put us at 6-2-2 in our last 10 and that was something we were fighting for,” he said. “We’re going to have to continue to fight that way. … when you play a good Dallas team that’s one of the better teams in the league and it’s a little bit of a benchmark for you. You’re disappointed with that loss.”

“The new faces we have are slowly growing together but we’re not satisfied at all,” O’Reilly said. “We’ve lost a lot of games by a couple minor details. We know we can be better. We want to win now. We want to get in these playoffs now and make a statement. The opportunity is there.”