During a team meeting last week to begin the schedule's second half, coach Ralph Krueger summarized to the Sabres what they accomplished over the first 41 games and emphasized the opportunity that lies ahead.
A playoff run could hinge on the Sabres addressing their struggles away from KeyBank Center. They have gone 2-10-3 in their last 15 away games and entered Wednesday with the NHL's fifth-worst road record.
Four of the Sabres' final six games before the All-Star break are on the road, beginning Thursday night in Enterprise Center against the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. Krueger explained following practice Wednesday that missed opportunities are to blame for the Sabres' road woes.
“We’ve been in games without taking opportunity early," he said. "I think we’ve had excellent starts on the road this season and just haven’t been able to finish on some of those early chances. Just being hungrier, even that much hungrier on the road where you’re not going to get any help from the energy in the building or being at home. You need to be able to just do that little bit extra where it comes to grip on the offensive side. ...
"It’s our offense that’s gone quite a bit more flat than here at home. That’s, for me, the biggest opportunity we have is early chances, get some leads, learn to play with those leads on the road and just get a little bit grittier around the offensive game.”
Entering Wednesday, the Sabres' penalty kill on the road ranked 30th in the NHL, compared to 13th at home. Their shortcomings away from Buffalo also include a negative-24 goal differential and the fifth-most goals per game against.
The Sabres have scored only 14 first-period goals, compared to 24 goals against in 22 road games. Comparatively, they entered Wednesday with the league's 10th-best home record and own a plus-16 goal differential inside KeyBank Center.
There have been some signs of progress on the road. The Sabres rallied from a pair of two-goal deficits to earn a point in a 6-5 overtime loss at Vancouver on Dec. 7, and Jack Eichel scored with 1:46 remaining in regulation to force overtime in a 3-2 loss to the Islanders Dec. 14 on Long Island.
The Sabres also mounted a rally that fell short in a 3-2 loss at Boston on Dec. 29. However, they need to gain ground in the Atlantic Division with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs surging. Buffalo (19-17-7) entered Wednesday six points out of a playoff spot and are without Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson.
The Blues (27-10-7), meanwhile, are first in the Central Division, seven points ahead of the Colorado Avalanche, and entered Wednesday with the third-best home record in the NHL. They're 9-2-1 in their last 13 games, including an eight-game win streak that ended Dec. 31.
"Every time we’ve spoken lately, I feel like we’ve played some really good games," Marcus Johansson said of the Sabres' play on the road. "We just haven’t gotten the results. That’s obviously the main thing when you’re playing hockey, but if we keep playing like that, we’re definitely going to get a lot more wins coming up here."
Eichel, Okposo return
Eichel and winger Kyle Okposo, both of whom missed practice Tuesday for "maintenance," skated with the Sabres on Wednesday and are set to play Thursday night against St. Louis. Eichel and Okposo were injured by high sticks during the Sabres' 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers on Saturday.
Lawrence Pilut is unlikely to have a role on the Sabres' power play if he makes his season debut Thursday in St. Louis. The 24-year-old defenseman practiced with the team's penalty-killing unit Wednesday, and Krueger did not make any personnel changes on the power play.
Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen remained as the net-front presence on the first unit with Olofsson out of the lineup. The Sabres broke an 0-for-16 power-play slump last Saturday against Florida. The top unit also included Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Marcus Johansson and Rasmus Dahlin.
"He has his own offensive style," Krueger said Saturday of using Ristolainen in front of the net. "It’s one of force and one of power, which is sometimes undervalued. In the National Hockey League today, it’s excellent to have a player with that personality as a contrast, let’s say, to Rasmus Dahlin, who does it more on the technical side. Risto has good technique in those battle situations, which we need to create more of."
Sabres prospect Matej Pekar, a 19-year-old forward, was traded Wednesday by the Ontario Hockey League's Barrie Colts to the Sudbury Wolves in exchange for five draft picks.
Pekar, who was a fourth round draft pick of the Sabres in 2018, had 16 goals among 29 points in 26 games for Barrie this season. Most recently, he represented Czech Republic at the IIHF World Junior Championship, where he had one assist in five games.