When the Buffalo Sabres concluded a three-game western Canada road trip last week in Vancouver, coach Phil Housley and his staff planned to take a short break before returning to work.
Upon reconvening in Buffalo, they likely concocted a practice script to address the team's porous defensive play. The Sabres, 24-18-6 at the All-Star break, are four points behind Pittsburgh for the second wild-card playoff spot after allowing 14 goals in western Canada, including seven in a loss in Edmonton.
"We just continue to work on it," Housley said following a 4-3 loss in Vancouver. "Work on it in practice -- checking detail, being quicker to close in the defensive zone. ... That’s what has made us a really good hockey team, and we have to continue to work and focus on it."
The Sabres will have only two practices and one morning skate before they play in Columbus on Tuesday night, and fixing those defensive mistakes is not the only item on Housley's post-break to-do list.
Here are some of the post-All-Star break questions surrounding the Sabres:
1. Will Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson break through? Rasmus Dahlin has only scratched the surface, which is remarkable considering all he has accomplished as a rookie. He is one of only four 18-year-old defensemen in NHL history to record a five-game point streak and is on pace for the second-most points in a season for an NHL defenseman before his 19th birthday, trailing only Housley (57 points in 1982-83).
However, the Sabres need more from their other two young players, Mittelstadt and Thompson.
Mittelstadt, 20, has two goals in his last 16 games and seven in 48 games this season, while Thompson, 21, has two goals in his last 22 games and six in 41 games this season. Both have the potential to take pressure off the Sabres' top line but have struggled to produce.
"The grind of the schedule can be very tough on young players," Housley said. "They haven't faced an 82-game schedule and the travel, going on the road. Just managing their own lives. I think the guys have done a really good job of that but it’s just a consistency within their game. We know and understand they’re going to make mistakes. It’s learning from those things moving forward."
2. What is wrong with the power play? Offense hasn't been the Sabres' problem recently. They beat Calgary, 4-3, on the road Jan. 16, and had plenty of scoring chances in Edmonton and Vancouver.
That said, the Sabres must fix their power play, which is only 2-for-27 over the past 10 games and ranks 21st in the league.
They generated more chances with a man advantage during the final week before the break but the attack also has looked stagnant and predictable at times. A top unit of Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Dahlin and Rasmus Ristolainen is far too talented to be producing at such a low rate.
3. Can they fix their 5-on-5 play?: The Sabres were allowing too many shots on goal during their 10-game winning streak, as illustrated by a 46.8 Corsi-for percentage -- a measurement of shot differential -- during 5-on-5 play, the third-worst mark in the NHL during that span. They also allowed the third-most shots on goal.
It would be unfair to only blame defensemen. Forwards also need to do a better job without the puck. The 5-on-5 problems have started in the offensive zone, where defensemen have pinched to join the attack, only to receive little help when an opponent breaks the puck out, leading to odd-man rushes.
"It’s a five-man group," defenseman Zach Bogosian said. "I wouldn’t just throw it all on the defense. As a five-man checking unit we needed to do a better job. [Defensemen] have to do a better job of reading pinches. Forwards have to do a better job of reloading back and helping us. As a group, as a team, we need to play better. That’s what it comes down to."
4. Who starts in goal? Carter Hutton has been a victim of circumstance at times. For whatever reason, the Sabres have played worse defensively in front of him. The 33-year-old was 8-0 with a .936 save percentage during the win streak. He has since won only two of 12 starts while posting a .898 save percentage.
Linus Ullmark, meanwhile, is 10-4-3 with a 2.93 goals against average and .914 save percentage this season, though he has lost three of his last four starts. Hutton has allowed a few soft goals over the past month, but Ullmark likely has not done enough to earn the job outright.
5. Does Nathan Beaulieu play after the break? Housley could opt to change personnel again after what happened in Vancouver. Lawrence Pilut and Marco Scandella both committed errors that led to Canucks goals. Beaulieu, who reportedly asked to be traded if he does not play, could be in the lineup ahead of Pilut in Columbus.
Beaulieu has the team's second-highest 5-on-5 shot-differential percentage since the Sabres' win streak ended -- trailing only Pilut -- though he has a negative-7 rating in those situations during that span.
Housley also could choose to play Matt Hunwick, who has been a healthy scratch for 13 consecutive games and has played only twice all season. Scandella is important to the Sabres' penalty kill, but his play has been erratic. Housley, like most coaches, has remained patient with struggling veterans. Will that continue?
6. Will Eichel have a big second half? Eichel was in the Hart Trophy conversation before suffering an upper-body injury that forced him to miss three-plus games, yet the entire fan base was alarmed when he went scoreless in three games upon returning.
Eichel broke out of his mini-slump with the game-winning overtime goal in Calgary and had an assist in the loss to Vancouver. The 22-year-old center has 16 goals and 36 assists in 45 games. He seemed to be gaining traction during the road trip, an important development considering how important he will be to the Sabres' playoff hopes.
"Obviously, you put pressure on yourself," Eichel said. "You want to be a difference-maker every night. When things aren’t going well, you want to be one of the guys to make a difference. That’s when you start gripping your stick and start thinking about it too much."
7. What's next for General Manager Jason Botterill? Botterill and Skinner's agent, Don Meehan, began preliminary discussions about a long-term extension and those talks will continue into February. Skinner wants to remain in Buffalo, and Botterill has the cap space to get a deal complete, within reason.
Botterill has much more on his plate, though. He has to decide whether now is the time to make a bold trade. Vladimir Sobotka has not scored a goal in 33 games, and Conor Sheary has one goal in his last 28 games. The Sabres could use a reliable, veteran scorer for the second line, possibly a center.
They have the assets and cap space to make a move, but would it be wise to wait until the summer? This team is likely a year away from being a legitimate contender, and Botterill will not be interested in a rental player.
Story topics: Buffalo Sabres