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Mike Harrington: Home was not where Sabres' hearts were

It's been an absurd hockey season in KeyBank Center. There are two games left for the Sabres, both on the road in Florida. Most fans in Buffalo probably want these guys to finish in Siberia rather than under the sun.

The home schedule ended Wednesday night against Ottawa. We should all be thankful.

The 4-2 loss to the Senators in the home finale left the Sabres 11-25-4 downtown (it's 11-25-5 at home, counting the Winter Classic at Citi Field). That's just 27 points at home. Flat-out pathetic. Nobody else in the league has fewer than 36 points and nobody else in the East has fewer than 38.

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A measure of the disparity: There are 16 teams in the NHL that entered Wednesday with at least 24 home wins, and 10 with at least 27 wins.

"You look at all good teams in the league, teams that have success, and they're all dominant at home," said a somber Ryan O'Reilly. "You can't expect to just win on the road. We have to be a lot better here."

The Sabres scored just 89 goals in 40 games downtown, allowing folks in the stands to clear their throats an average of just 2.23 times per game (Memo to the Sabres: Time for a new goal song. DJ Kool is officially connected to losing and lack of scoring).

The 11 wins are tied with the 1971-72 edition for the fewest in franchise history for a full season. That club finished 11-19-9 but generated good feelings from the play of young versions of Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin, Don Luce and Craig Ramsay.

The finish was a high note too, the 3-2 win over Philadelphia on the last night of the season that saw Gerry Meehan's goal with four seconds to play knock the Flyers out of the playoffs when all they needed was a tie. It's the night credited with starting the Buffalo-Philly rivalry that burned hot for many years, including the 1975 Stanley Cup final.

You can talk about Jack Eichel and about Sam Reinhart's last three months. Or about the hopes for Casey Mittelstadt, Brendan Guhle and Alex Nylander. Fair enough. But the hope tank is awfully empty around here unless General Manager Jason Botterill wipes out half the roster.

Coach Phil Housley talked in the morning about how he appreciated the fans for sticking with this team through a tough season. After the game, he questioned why his players weren't more invested in playing for them. O'Reilly scored after 30 seconds and the Sabres then gave up the next three goals.

The Sabres finished the home season with five straight losses and the last four (Arizona, Montreal, Detroit, Ottawa) were against NHL dregs. They won two straight at home just once all season -- Feb. 25 against Boston and March 5 against Toronto. After those solid outings, Buffalo went 1-7-1 in its last nine at home.

There were clearly fewer people in the building for the second and third periods. Seems like folks came down to get their Dominik Hasek bobblehead and hit the exits after 20 minutes. Can you blame them?

Asked how shocked he was to finish 31st, a somber  Housley said simply, "This is just where we are as a group. Let's be honest. We have a long way to go."

What was the biggest moment of the season at home? Maybe it was Eichel's first career hat trick in the Dec. 15 overtime loss to Carolina -- the first one by any Sabre here since Thomas Vanek in 2011.

The next most significant thing during a home game? I'll vote for Botterill's rousing slam of the door on his press box suite during the awful loss against Los Angeles in Feburary, with Botterill admitting the next week he was flashing back to the dreadful 7-1 January defeat here against Dallas.

Now, the Sabres had some interesting wins at home (Boston, Toronto, Washington, Columbus, Chicago). An overtime loss to Anaheim and a shootout loss to Vegas were entertaining.

But if this franchise has any hope of getting better, it needs to figure out its home ice. Even last year under Dan Bylsma, who was the problem everyone wanted to be rid of, this club won 20 games at home.

The Sabres won 25 during their 2009-10 division championship season. During the 2006 and 2007 Eastern Conference final seasons, the combined record was 55-21-6. Until the last five years, the tradition here has always been that home ice was automatic. In 10 of their first 14 seasons in the NHL, in fact, the Sabres lost fewer than 10 home games.

You couldn't get out of Memorial Auditorium without your ears ringing, as well as your bodies and egos bruised. And forget about the two points.

Now a stat that will shock you: The Sabres entered play Wednesday with 35 points on the road via a 14-18-7 record. That's one point fewer -- yes, one -- than defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh and Minnesota. It's two behind Colorado and Florida, both of whom are fighting to make the playoffs.

The Sabres haven't been worldbeaters on the road by any stretch but they have several notable wins out of town. They won in Boston, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Nashville and Anaheim. They swept in Western Canada (Calgary-Edmonton-Vancouver). They lost overtime thrillers in Vegas, Chicago and St. Louis.

There are a lot of interesting moments there, exactly what's been missing at home. If the Sabres ever want to escape draft lotteries, they have to figure out how to play in their own barn. They expected to challenge for the playoffs this year. They didn't come close.

"You can expect all you want," O'Reilly said. "It comes down to doing it and getting better. And obviously we got worse."

What's next for Buffalo's aging KeyBank Center?

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