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Clunker aside, Sabres happy with how month has gone

Aside from being a hockey player, Josh Gorges is a hockey fan. He’ll turn on the television Monday, and he’ll flip to NHL Network.

When the highlights from Chicago’s 5-1 victory over the Sabres come on, the defenseman might want to shield his eyes. The Blackhawks were unquestionably the better team Sunday in KeyBank Center, and it showed on the scoreboard.

But when the league’s commentators start talking about the standings and the playoff race, Gorges’ mood will no doubt pick up. A good stretch of hockey this month has put the Sabres back into the mix. They hope they stay there during their bye week and beyond.

“No reason for it, no excuse for it,” Gorges said of the loss, “but the last little while we’ve been playing some good hockey. We’ve played a lot of hockey here recently. The guys have been battling hard. We’ve put ourselves back in a position to be fighting for our lives to be in the playoffs.

“We’ll focus on what we have to do, keep putting wins together, keep collecting points, and we’ll see where we are at the end of it.”

When the Sabres return from their five-day hiatus, they’ll have 22 games left. It typically takes 95 points to secure a playoff spot, which means the Sabres (26-24-10) will have to put up a .750 points percentage the rest of the way.

During their last four games, they had a .750 points percentage.

“This game would have been nice to win, but we string another three, four together after the break, we’re right in it,” goaltender Robin Lehner said. “I feel like this year is going to be a race to the finish line.

“We’ve been playing good hockey lately, and we can’t get away from ourselves for one game. After the break, it starts again. We’ve got to string games together, and I think we’re going to do that.”

Buffalo starts the post-bye schedule with winnable games. They visit Colorado on Saturday and Arizona on Sunday.

“Two teams that are at the bottom of the league,” said left wing Evander Kane, the Sabres’ lone goal scorer. “We have to take advantage of those games. We have to come ready to play when we get off that break.”

The Sabres could use the rest. They finished 11 games in 18 days against the Blackhawks. They went 6-4-1 during the run, including 4-2 in the past six games.

The final one was a clunker. After a 1-1 first period, Chicago ran away from the Sabres. It was 3-1 after two and 5-1 at the buzzer. The Blackhawks finished with a 37-26 shot edge and forced the Sabres into an 0-for-4 night on the power play. That included a five-on-three for 1:28 late in the first.

“We did some good things in the last few games, and obviously this one hurts because you know how close you’ve got yourself,” Sabres center Jack Eichel said. “This would have been a real nice one to get before the break. We played a good team, and we obviously didn’t have our best.”

While the Blackhawks badly outclassed the Sabres, Buffalo has proved it can play with the big boys. The Sabres are 17-10-6 against teams that held a playoff spot Sunday night. They are 9-14-4 against teams not in a postseason position.

“We got beat by a good team, and we got beat by one of the better teams,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “Yes, we’ve played a lot of games in the last 19 days and a lot in the last week here, but it was a challenge and a measuring stick against a really good team. We come on the wrong end of it.

“We’re four of our last six. We had a good stretch of games here, and those are important games to win. You just had one more opportunity before our break here to get a win. It goes by the wayside.”

The Sabres will curl up on the couch or by the ocean before flying to Colorado on Friday. It will allow them to rest up for a frantic finish that includes seven games in 11 days after the break.

“It’s almost one of those things, we’re feeling good as a group and we’d like to keep rolling, keep playing,” Gorges said, “but we’ll take the break, drop this game, get re-energized. We know next month’s no different. We’re playing the same amount of games. We’ve got a bunch of back-to-backs, a lot of hockey coming up, important hockey.”

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