Jack Eichel shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. A day removed from the shootout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday still saw the Buffalo Sabres a bit baffled and disappointed.
But for the most part, they skated it out Sunday morning, having their last practice and organized team activity before taking a five-day holiday break.
They scrimmaged for about 45 minutes at HarborCenter, getting in a good sweat and having a bit of fun.
Because even after the disappointing finale against the Blackhawks, the Sabres are going into the break playing some of their best hockey of the season.
It was just two weeks ago when the team had a disastrous trip to the West Coast. They were a hot mess in losses in Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary, giving up 13 goals in the three games.
They looked poised to head into free fall. But the free fall never happened.
The Sabres returned to Buffalo and knocked off the Los Angeles Kings, then the hottest team in the NHL, 2-1, in overtime. They traveled to Detroit and ended the Red Wings’ 13-game point streak with a late 2-1 win.
In their five games since returning from the West Coast swing, the Sabres went 3-1-1, giving up just six total goals.
“Turnovers were high and we just didn’t play our brand of hockey,” coach Dan Bylsma said of the road trip. “There were wide-open scoring chances – 20 against, which is eight too many. Since we’ve been home, whether it’s playing a tough team in L.A. that sharpened our focus,” they got back to allowing “10 scoring chances or under and back to the way we need to play.”
The tweaks defensively centered on playing tighter and using all five players to break out of the defensive zone.
“I just feel like we lost sight of the little details in our game, in supporting each other,” defenseman Mike Weber said. “I think on the West Coast trip we were getting spread out too much. Our forwards were getting spread out. The D-men, we were getting spread out. We weren’t as close. We just refocused in on staying tight and using each other. Everyone’s an option getting out of the D-zone and you can see that.”
After breaking out of the defensive zone, the next key for the Sabres is staying in the offensive zone.
“Obviously our goals against are down because we’re primarily playing in the offensive zone. That’s a big part of it,” Weber said.
When the Sabres talk about getting back to their game, they’re often talking about offensive zone time, taking care of the puck and creating scoring chances off sustained pressure rather than free-wheeling, open-ice skating.
“We got back to what was our foundation,” captain Brian Gionta said of the last five games. “On that West Coast trip we had a lot of turnovers. We were sloppy with the puck, never were able to establish our forecheck. We got back to managing the puck better through the neutral zone, giving ourselves a chance to forecheck and establish that because we’re a much better team when we’re doing that. We get a lot of chances off the forecheck, off sustained pressure in the offensive zone as opposed to the straight rush chances.”
Players were looking forward to the extended family time, especially after the packed schedule the Sabres played the last two weeks. Gionta, a native of Rochester, will get to drive his family to his ancestral home on Christmas Day. Eichel will return to Massachusetts, noting he hasn’t been home since August.
“It’s a good break for all of us,” Eichel said. “It will be good for us to rejuvenate mentally and physically.”
While the break is good, players are still going home with suggested workouts while ice will be available Monday and Tuesday in Buffalo for players staying local for the holiday.
There is a mandatory league shutdown Dec. 23-25, when no organized team activities, including workouts and travel, can take place. That means the team won’t be together again until Dec. 26, when it will meet in Buffalo in the morning and fly to play the Bruins in Boston that night.
That means it’s up to players to not only rest and recover but keep themselves in game shape over the week.
“This is part of being a professional,” Gionta said. “Yes, on the books you’ve got a five-day break where nothing is mandatory, but it’s about taking care of yourself and preparing for the 26th, regardless of what’s going on. That shows your professionalism in how you handle things like this.”
Josh Gorges was the only Sabre missing from practice on Sunday. “He had the flu,” Bylsma said. “He was coming down with the flu yesterday, made it through the game yesterday and just under the weather. Didn’t want him around the guys.”
The NHL roster freeze is in effect until Dec. 27. No player can be traded, waived or demoted. The only transaction available is an emergency call-up.
What does the Sabres coach hope to see under the tree Christmas morning?
“I’m not going to talk about hockey,” Bylsma said. “I’m hoping my son comes through with some fishing lures and some fishing stuff under the Christmas tree.”