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Phil Housley sees Sabres growing accustomed to his coaching

The Buffalo Sabres spent New Year's in New York, but it was a time of thanksgiving for coach Phil Housley.

After the team practiced in Citi Field on Sunday, the opening question for Housley was about Jack Eichel and the Winter Classic stage.

"First of all, I'd just like to thank the NHL because the ice surface was excellent," the coach said.

After the 3-2 overtime loss to the New York Rangers on Monday, the opening question for Housley was about how his team rebounded from its poor start.

"First of all, I've got to thank the New York Police Department for providing us that nice escort to get to the building and all they do," the coach said.

The smile and tone showed Housley truly appreciated the work done by the groups. What is also making him happier is the Sabres are finally starting to get him.

While the Sabres' recent 4-3-5 record won't win a Stanley Cup, it's much better than the 6-17-4 debacle that preceded it.

"Things weren't clicking," Housley said. "It took some time to really get the players to understand where we were coming from."

Housley's coaching tenets include hard forechecking, fast skating, crisp outlet passes and a shot mentality. It's still a work in progress, but he believes the Sabres are getting there.

"Earlier on in the season there were a lot of struggles," Housley said. "A lot of the games we were in were one-goal games or were even. And I talked about it before that we were just cracking at the wrong time, making a critical mistake at the wrong time. They were tough, and it was tough on our group.

"It was tough on our hockey club, our coaches because we kept trying to grind it out and try to find different areas that we needed to improve in our team."

Sabres' game-worn Winter Classic jerseys available via auction

The games themselves are still a grind. Eight of the last 12 have been decided by a goal, and two others featured empty-netters that increased the margin to two.

The Sabres are last in the NHL with a .263 win percentage in one-goal games. The loss to the Rangers dropped them to 5-5-9 in close calls and 10-20-9 overall.

"You can see the confidence growing in our guys, which could have been that way early in the season if those games are flipped," Housley said. "But those are tough times. You really learn a lot about yourself as a player and as a team, even as a coaching staff.

"But I really like the way we're playing right now. You can see it out there that there's times when we bend but we don't break, which is a credit to our team."

The Sabres earned points in their last two games by erasing two-goal deficits to the Rangers and New Jersey, picking up a 4-3 overtime win against the Devils. It would be interesting to see what they could do if they started well instead of chasing the opponents.

The Sabres have led after one period in just seven of their 39 games. They are last in the league with one win when leading after 20 minutes.

It would help to have a solid start when Buffalo returns to the ice. It travels to Minnesota for a game Thursday night, and the Wild are 9-0-1 when leading after one period.

The game in Minnesota will serve as a homecoming for Housley, defenseman Marco Scandella and right wing Jason Pominville. Housley is a St. Paul native who will be a head coach in his home state for the first time since leading Stillwater High from 2004 to 2013. Scandella spent nine seasons in the Wild organization, while Pominville played the previous five years in Minnesota.

They hope to show the natives that Buffalo is finally figuring out Housley and his coaching style.

"I feel like our game is definitely improving," Pominville said. "Through this last little stretch, we've taken steps. Our bench has been great. Our room before games has improved a lot, so I think we're heading in the right direction. We want to keep pushing."

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