Over the past five weeks, Dan Bylsma has kept tabs in the upper right-hand corner of the dry-erase board inside the Sabres’ dressing room. He knew where his team stood through 40 games this season and figured it made little sense for his players to carry the weight of their overall record.
The Sabres didn’t need to be reminded they were near the bottom of the NHL. There comes a point in which losing becomes too heavy, and the standings turn into an insurmountable burden for a team trying to improve. Bylsma’s solution was breaking down the season into three-game segments before his team buckled.
Over the first 40 games, the Sabres garnered 34 points or 42.5 percent of the total available. In the 17 contests since he cleaned the slate every three games, Buffalo has picked up 18 out of 34 points, or nearly 53 percent. In yet another lost season, their recent play amounts to incremental progress.
The latest installment was a 4-1 victory Sunday afternoon over the Avalanche before 19,070 fans in First Niagara Center. The Sabres treated fans to their second straight home win, which has happened once every two months this year, rousing them during a two-man advantage Buffalo killed off in the third period.
Let’s not get too excited. The big picture still looks the same. But if the Sabres aren’t going to take any major leap up the NHL standings, certainly they can appreciate steps up the basement stairs. They’re embracing small victories with the idea they will eventually lead to big wins down the road.
“We don’t have a choice,” Bylsma said. “Looking at wins and looking at our mindset, we’re still trying to win games and win series. Sixty-six percent is winning two out of three. And that’s our focus.”
Sunday’s matinee had the making of a St. Valentine’s Day massacre. Buffalo had a 3-0 lead before Colorado woke up and smelled trouble. The Sabres were outplayed in the final two periods while protecting their lead. At least they had the lead, which was something they can build upon.
Jack Eichel, Evander Kane, Sam Reinhart and Marcus Foligno scored for Buffalo, offering a glimpse into the future. Robin Lehner stopped 34 shots and rebounded after giving up nine goals on 30 shots in his previous two starts. The Sabres now are gunning for their second three-game winning streak this season.
Is that improvement?
It’s a start and nothing more.
The Sabres are better than they were last year, which is faint praise for a team that couldn’t get much worse. The four players who scored Sunday will be core players, assuming Kane sticks around after his contract expires in 2018. Eichel and Reinhart provide reasons for optimism, but the Sabres need more.
Ryan O’Reilly was the Sabres’ top player for the first half of the season before his offensive production tailed off. He had another scoring chance Sunday but failed to find the net for the 16th straight game. He’s a very good player but Colorado, in the playoff hunt while playing in the NHL’s toughest division, has survived without him.
“We’re seeing progress, which is huge, but it’s frustrating,” O’Reilly said. “You never know which year is going to be the year. We have to win now. We can’t be satisfied with winning a few more games than last year. We have to push to be the best no matter what. Look at the top teams. You think they feel sorry for us? No.”
Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov showed sympathy when he took the crease to open the game and found a seat before many fans did. He was given the hook after allowing two soft goals on the first two shots. Colorado was so dreadful in the opening minutes that Matt Moulson could have scored.
The Sabres enjoyed a rare first period in which they did everything right against an uninspired team that was slow to engage. Eichel looked like he was weaving through old men in a beer league when he opened the scoring 2:02 into the game. Kane scored on a shot that was easier to stop than anything Varlamov faced in warmup.
For Buffalo, it was a second straight win at home. For Colorado, it was a clunker on the road that was tossed into the nearest garbage can and quickly forgotten.
“We can’t think, ‘Next year is our year’ or ‘two years from now is going to be the year,’ ” O’Reilly said. “It has to be this year. If we got hot, we could climb our way back in the race. We have to learn that.”
Eternal optimists in Buffalo get tired of hearing about Edmonton, which had four No. 1 picks overall in a six-year span and were in 29th place Sunday. Never mind the Oilers. Look at the Penguins, who have established world-class stars in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and are clinging to a wild-card spot in the East.
Every team is trying to get better.
The Sabres could add a top player, such as Steven Stamkos, and still be several players from contending for a playoff spot and miles away from challenging the upper echelon of the league. My biggest beef with the tank was fans buying the idea that all would be well once a terrific prospect, in their case Eichel, arrived.
It’s not that easy.
This miserable drought isn’t going to last forever. At some point, the Sabres will get turned around and make the playoffs. The laws of averages is bound to take over. Then again, who would have guessed the Bills would play 16 straight seasons without reaching the postseason?
The Sabres have a long way to go before they start making any real noise. First Niagara Center has less energy than a funeral on most nights. You get the sense many people, worn out from all the losing, are dragging themselves to games and forcing themselves to get excited.
For the Sabres, the trick for the final 25 games will be enjoying the little victories and not crumbling under the losses. Like Bylsma said, they don’t have a choice.
“That’s what our organization wants to do, look at it on a day-to-day basis,” Eichel said. “Somehow get better every day. It’s good to see a few wins. It’s something we need to take pride in. We need to make this rink and this atmosphere a place where teams don’t want to come in and play.”