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Sabres searching for a consistent mental game

Among the things the Buffalo Sabres are searching for early this season, along with goals and better defense, is little bit of resiliency.

On more than one occasion, Sabres coach Phil Housley has talked about the mental toughness of his team. Some days, they have it. Some days, they don't. And the ability to find consistency in resiliency can be the difference between a 5-4 overtime win in Boston and a 5-1 drubbing in Columbus.

The resiliency and mental toughness the Sabres are searching for comes down to a simple sounding statement – stick to the game plan.

But Buffalo has struggled to do that. The Sabres have made mistakes and given up goals only to see their play get tighter and too defensive. They've made mistakes and tried to press too much offensively, trying to create something outside of the game plan only to give up odd-man rushes and easy goals against.

Housley talked about his team's mental toughness on Wednesday, after the Blue Jackets scored three goals in a three-minute span at the end of the second period to earn the win.

"There's a lot of things that involve mental toughness – rebounding from a game or facing adversity," Housley said Friday after the Sabres practiced for Saturday's 1 p.m. game against the San Jose Sharks in KeyBank Center. "I think what I meant by that the last time we spoke was the discipline in our game. Here we are at the five-minute mark (of the second period) only down one and we got away from that discipline. … The mental toughness part was more the discipline part for me. Certainly our group is pretty resilient. We've responded in the right way."

The Sabres have been able to respond twice in big ways. They came back from a 4-1 third-period deficit in Vegas to gain a point despite the overtime loss. They came back from a 4-1 deficit in Boston, earning a 5-4 OT win.

But sometimes it's easy to turn up your game when you've already dug yourself a big hole.

"You have nothing to lose … you have to play aggressive in both ends of the rink but you can't be afraid to lose," Sabres forward Evander Kane said. "Sometimes we're thinking a little bit too much at the start of the game and we get down by a couple of goals and … we kinda just say, we've got nothing to lose, let's go get it. Let's give it all we've got. For us, we've got to realize, if we score the first goal, we've got to try to get the next one. There's no penalty for scoring too many goals or getting a lead too big."

So while the Sabres have may have shown flashes resiliency in two games, they're still searching for consistency in the first 40 minutes, particularly those little moments of mental toughness and discipline that can prevent the need for dramatic comebacks.

"It could be confidence, too, a little bit," said Sabres forward Jason Pominville.

"I think when you start winning, you start feeling better about your game. We did it in Vegas where we came back in a game. We did it in Boston. I mean when we're down, we know we can do it. But once you start winning games you build that confidence, that trust, that knowing how to win in key situations. Not deviating from the system is something that we've got to do a little bit better job at because we're not that far off."

Winning is contagious and learning how to win is what begets more winning. It's something that Pominville lived first-hand in Minnesota last year.

"It’s not easy. Confidence is such a big part of the game and when you don't have it you're searching for it and it's usually tough to find," Pominville said. "Sometimes, as crazy as it sounds, all you need is a little bounce to go your way. Last year in Minnesota we went on a stretch where we won 13 in a row and there's probably some games in there we shouldn’t have won, but we found ways to win."

Call it confidence, resiliency, or mental toughness, but the head-game is something that forward Justin Bailey spent time working on over the summer. It was a point of emphasis for the young pro, who wanted to learn how to let go of mistakes and move on to the next play. And the mental game has been just as important as his physical game as Bailey has made his case for staying in the Sabres lineup.

"I think for me, it's worrying about the present," Bailey said. "It's thinking about that game for the rest of the night but then making sure I don't take any negative thoughts into the next game. It's just trying to notice that if I make a mistake, I make sure the next time that a play comes up that's similar, I make the smart play. I don't want to let myself get distracted by a mistake."

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