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As Sabres' slide continues, Jeff Skinner trying to 'work through' recent slump

When the Buffalo Sabres' season reached its apex, Zoom Copy in downtown Buffalo placed a sign outside its Main Street storefront that read, "Jeff Skinner for Mayor."

At the time, the 26-year-old winger was the toast of Buffalo, captivating the Sabres' long-frustrated fan base by scoring 10 goals during their 10-game winning streak in November. He was the leading goal scorer on the best team in the NHL through the season's first 25 games.

Now, Skinner is only three weeks away from continuing his run as the league's longest-tenured player yet to appear in a Stanley Cup playoff game and will carry a 12-game goalless drought into Thursday night's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The talk of his pending unrestricted free agency, and a possible long-term contract extension, has been replaced by questions about his unprecedented bad luck and the Sabres' historic slide.

"We’re not where we want to be," Skinner said following practice Wednesday in KeyBank Center. "That’s not a great feeling. Again, we can only control what we do from here on."

Despite the recent slump, Skinner's 36 goals in 69 games are 10 behind Washington's Alex Ovechkin for the league lead and rank ninth overall. Skinner became the fifth player in franchise history to score at least 35 goals in his first season with the Sabres and his next goal will match his previous career high, which was set in 2016-17.

Additionally, his 28 even-strength goals are already the most ever recorded by a player in his first season with the team, and he is on pace to become the first Sabre to score at least 40 goals since Thomas Vanek had 40 in 2008-09.

This is the third-longest slump of his career – Skinner was held scoreless in the final 18 games of 2014-15 – an unprecedented statistical regression considering he had not gone more than four games without a goal this season.

Still, Skinner has been everything General Manager Jason Botterill could have hoped for when the Sabres acquired him from Carolina for prospect Cliff Pu and three draft picks in August. Skinner, who will turn 27 in May, has 58 points while posting the Sabres' best 5-on-5 shot differential.

While puck luck remains elusive, Skinner has continued to generate scoring chances during the Sabres' offensive drought. He hit the post twice Tuesday in a 2-0 loss to Dallas, using his skating ability to drive to the net through a group of defenders before firing off a backhanded shot.

"When he’s at his best he’s stripping pucks from behind, he’s reloading well, turning pucks over and he’s getting opportunities," coach Phil Housley explained. "He’s getting a lot of looks. It’s going to come for him. At this point, since he hasn’t scored in a long time it gets elevated, but he’s still getting the looks. ... He just needs to continue to find ways to create."

While Skinner has only five points over the past 12 games, he has 37 shots on goal during that span, including 21 over a four-game stretch, to rank second on the team behind Jack Eichel. He scored twice in a 6-2 loss to the New York Rangers on Feb. 15, only to post a minus-2 rating in the two games that followed.

Skinner then suffered what appeared to be a devastating knee injury when he was tripped by Washington's Carl Hagelin during the second period, only to return for the third period of a 5-2 Buffalo win on Feb. 23. He has played at least 20 minutes in four of the past eight games and has been held without a shot only once.

"You’re going to go through stretches where things aren’t going your way or you’re not finishing as many chances as you’d like, but you want to create as much as you can," Skinner added. "If you keep creating, odds are that over the course of time it will even out and things will start to go in. As a line, as a team, I think we’ve created a little more than we’ve gotten over the last few games and we’ve got to keep doing that."

With the Sabres' goalless drought at 137 minutes, 40 seconds, Housley shuffled his lines during practice Wednesday and has Skinner skating with Vladimir Sobotka and Jason Pominville since Eichel has one game left on a suspension.

Skinner's regression did not came at an inopportune time. His agent, Don Meehan, is actively negotiating a contract extension with Botterill, and the market has been set with Vegas signing recently acquired winger Mark Stone to an eight-year, $76 million extension.

Skinner has said all along his focus is on the season, leaving all contract talks up to Meehan. While a deal is not complete, Skinner has not hid his desire to remain in Buffalo. He beamed Wednesday when asked of Rasmus Dahlin's progress, saying, "He’s only going to continue to get better, which is nice for us and scary for everyone else."

On the team's growth and chemistry since his arrival, Skinner said, "There’s a really good group of guys, which is big. When you’re going out there and playing as many games as you are, going through ups and downs, it’s a lot more enjoyable when you like the guys that you’re sort of doing it with."

While the Sabres are 13 games away from likely becoming only the second team in NHL history to miss the playoffs in the same season in which they won 10 games in a row, Skinner's focus is on gathering points, for himself and the team.

"Everyone is competitive," he said. "Everyone in here wants to win. Everyone in here wants to produce. During times those things aren’t happening you sort of have to bear down and work through it. It happens to everyone. It happens to every team and every player in the league. You have to work through it and get through it as quick as you can."

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