ARLINGTON, Va. — And as they wait for the phone to ring with the NHL trade deadline approaching, the Buffalo Sabres play on. Away from KeyBank Center, the Sabres' road show continues to be a rousing success.
It continues Saturday night in Capital One Arena against the Washington Capitals, with Buffalo at 5-0-1 in its last six road games following Thursday's 3-2 overtime buzzer-beater in Detroit. For a team that remains dead last in the Eastern Conference, the Sabres are on their best road point streak since going 6-0-1 in 2011, their last playoff season.
"It just seems on the road we get focused," coach Phil Housley said after practice Friday in the Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "There's no distractions, we're on the bus together, we're going to the game together and focused on winning hockey games. At home, it just seems like the mentality right now because of what happened is tough to get out of that rut. We have to simplify our game and not manufacture things that aren't there."
"We've come out and played simple hockey," said goaltender Robin Lehner. "The situation we're in as a team and organization right now is tough. We really want to do well at home and that might be a problem. I feel for the fans. We all want to be better for them so much, we do a little bit too much. The pressure is off on the road."
The Sabres have outscored their opponents, 20-8, in the six games and have spent most of the time playing from in front. They're scored the first goal in their last five road outings; they've opened the scoring only three times in the last 10 in KeyBank Center, where they are on a 2-7-1 slide and an NHL-worst 8-18-4 on the season. The overall road record is 10-14-7.
"It helps a lot when you get the first goal and you have the lead," said defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, who scored to put Buffalo in front in the opening four minutes in Detroit. "We've played pretty well when we've had the lead. Yesterday was strong, almost a full 60 minutes for us."
"At home it gets in your head more when things aren't going the way you want," said winger Jason Pominville. "But your confidence really goes there when they're going well. It gets extreme. You want to make sure you win for the fans and bring that energy. Sometimes it just doesn't happen and it becomes very negative.
"On the road, we're not thinking. We're just going out and playing. It's probably what we should be doing at home and not worry about it. I don't know why it happens that way. It's really weird."
Lehner spent the first half of the season leading the league in goals-against average and save percentage at home but has since found the same kind of trouble the rest of his team has. On the road, suddenly, Lehner has been staunch.
In his last seven games at home, Lehner is just 1-5-1 with a 3.80 goals-against average. His last four on the road? The numbers are 3-0-1, 1.22 and .963.
Lehner made a pair of key saves on odd-man rushes in the wild, whistle-less overtime session Thursday in Little Caesars Arena.
"It's more open ice at 3-on-3 so you can't be deep in your net on a shooter," Lehner said. "A guy has time to pick a corner. Then you have to be aggressive on him but he gets the puck over and you've got to throw yourself over. We made much smarter decisions in overtime than we have in the past. We held on to the puck more. Smarter decisions give you a better chance."
The Sabres are 0-3-1 in their last four visits here and the Capitals are in desperation mode as they try to cling to the lead in the Metropolitan Division over hard-charging Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Washington is just 4-5-2 in February while the Penguins are 8-1-1 in their last 10 entering Friday and acquired Ottawa center Derek Brassard to bolster their third line. The Flyers are 8-0-2 in their last 10 and have added Detroit goaltender Petr Mrazek.
Things remained status quo for the Sabres at practice Friday, which potential trade subjects Evander Kane and Benoit Pouliot taking regular shifts on their lines while goaltenders Chad Johnson and Lehner put in their normal day. It remains to be seen if any players will be held out of Saturday's game or Sunday visit by Boston, the final game before the deadline.
Lehner said he's just focusing on playing for whatever team wants him, be it the Sabres or someone else. But he wishes things were different for the club in Buffalo.
"There's that hesitation at home. It's cumulative and builds up," Lehner said. "It's a different feeling. The positive is we really want to do it but it feels like every home game now is a must-win game. Hopefully it can turn around. Our fans back home deserve to see some of this winning hockey."