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Sabres out to prove western wins not fool's gold

There were no magic potions. No heroic individual feats of skill and strength. Instead, the Buffalo Sabres put together a three-game winning streak on their western road trip with the hockey essentials – attention to detail, a sense of urgency, and team play.

They beat the Flames in Calgary, 2-1 in overtime, followed that with a 5-0 win over the Oilers in Edmonton and a 4-0 win over the Canucks in Vancouver.

Now the Sabres return to KeyBank Center, out to prove the three wins weren't just fool's gold as they host the New Jersey Devils at 7 p.m. Tuesday

"You know what, it's going to be a good test for us," Sabres forward Kyle Okposo said Monday afternoon as the Sabres returned to practice in HarborCenter after the NHL All-Star break. "I think that we need to keep taking steps as a team. I think that was probably step No. 1. We needed to put a few games together where we really showed what we can do and really played well for three games. Now we've got to take another step. We've got to come back home and be really good on home ice. We've got to start being better on home ice and defending our building."

Defending home ice has been an issue for the Sabres who are just 6-12-3 in KeyBank Center (although their road mark of 8-14-6 isn't much better). The Sabres will have plenty of opportunity to win at home as 20 of their final 33 games of the season are in KeyBank Center.

Playoff hopes, while mathematically possible, are nonexistent, but rewarding Buffalo sports fans and setting a new tone are certainly on the list of goals for this final stretch.

"The fans have come and supported us all year," Sabres coach Phil Housley said. "But when you're winning in Buffalo, it's unbelievable. The fans are behind you and when you can be a physical team, a team that gives a great effort night-in, night-out. I think that's what they're looking for and if you can do that, you'll get results."

Sabres Notebook: Team success leads to individual honors

When last the Sabres faithful saw the team in Buffalo, they weren't watching  much of an effort in a 7-1 drubbing by the Dallas Stars.

Maybe the team needed to hit rock bottom. Maybe it shouldn't have taken rock bottom for a change to happen.

But undeniably something clicked after that loss.

"That was a pretty low point for sure," Okposo said of the 7-1 loss. "We've all been searching for answers this year. Maybe we found it in that game and just getting embarrassed like we did. They just worked. That's all they did was work. We had no time, we had no space, we had no anything.

"I think we did a similar thing on that three-game road trip. All we did was work and then things started to happen. And hey, if you work every game, you're not going to win every game but you're going to be in most games. If we don't bring that top work ethic then we're not going to win many games."

Work ethic has been a key preached by the Sabres staff all season. So too has a defensive mentality. It's what helped goaltender Robin Lehner to register back-to-back shutouts for the first time in franchise history since Ryan Miller did it in 2012.

And the defense wasn't just about the six defensemen. It was about a commitment from all five skaters on the ice at a time.

"We defended. We started playing defense," Lehner said when asked what flipped for the team last week. "The amount of work our forwards did over the last three games, they were incredible. Just them coming back so hard and making it easy for our D and making it easy for me. We were defending with three, four, five guys. It makes a big difference.

"It's hard to fall apart when we're five guys playing together," Lehner said. "If one breaks, there's another guy. If that guy breaks, there's another guy. It's been small margins before where we haven't been those layers. We play with one layer and when that layer breaks, it's breaks totally. It all starts from the worth ethic of our team an understanding that our defense starts in the offensive zone."

So how do the Sabres go about replicating that success?

Again, there's no magic. It's all about effort and simplicity.

"We need to put our foot down here and have the same type of effort," Housley said. "We don't need to change anything. We have to just play a simple game and when we do that, we'll have success. We don't have to create things that aren't there. We have to take what the game gives us and try to start something here at home for the remainder of the season."

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