ST. LOUIS — We're just 10 days into 2020 and the situation is already looking dire. It's going to take a major, major run for the Buffalo Sabres to avoid extending their playoff drought to nine years.
In their first game in five days, the Sabres were outclassed, 5-1, Thursday by the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues before 18,096 in Enterprise Center.
The Sabres are 3-7-1 in their 11 games and are losing touch with any semblance of a race. They were outshot, 31-19, marking the second straight game they failed to get to 20. It was 2-0 for St. Louis after one period and 2-1 for about 5 1/2 minutes in the second after Jack Eichel's 27th goal of the season.
David Perron's power-play goal at 10:17 of the second made it 3-1 and that was that.
"When you don't play for five days, you're not going to be as crisp as you usually are when you're playing a lot," Eichel said. "But we were rested. We should have had a lot of energy. I just don't think our game ever got going."
At 19-18-7 overall for 45 points, you can forget about the Sabres cracking the top three in the Atlantic Division. Talent and preseason prognostications have finally come through there.
Defending Eastern Conference champion Boston has 63 points after its 5-4 win over Winnipeg on Thursday, a game fueled by a hat trick from NHL goal leader David Pastrnak. Tampa Bay blanked Arizona on Thursday, 4-0, to win its ninth straight and improve to 56 points while Toronto is at 54 and flourishing under new coach Sheldon Keefe.
Those three teams are a combined 21-3-6 over their last 10 games, leaving no window for any other team to crack the division's upper echelon.
The Sabres are even losing touch with the wild-card race. Carolina and Philadelphia both hold those spots at 52 points. And while the Sabres have two games apiece remaining with both teams, it might not matter. None of the games are until March and Buffalo has dropped 10 straight to Carolina.
"We need to get a rhythm here of getting at least two wins of every three games for a while to push ourselves back up into the race," acknowledged coach Ralph Krueger. "We know that exists but at the same time we are here to continue to grow this group and deal with the adversity that we have right now."
Florida beat Vancouver on Thursday to improve to 51 points, Columbus, which had won two straight in California before Thursday's loss in San Jose, is at 50 and the New York Rangers crawled a point ahead of Buffalo with Thursday's 6-3 win over New Jersey.
The summary thus looks like this: Buffalo is fifth in the Atlantic, 12th in the Eastern Conference and 23rd overall. There's no playoff push there. That's a team that will be selling at the trade deadline and getting ready to watch the ping-pong balls at yet another draft lottery.
"Teams keep winning," Eichel said. "It seems like we take a couple steps forward and then we take a step back. We have to regroup on Saturday."
This game was no contest. The Sabres spotted the Blues the early lead and had little buzz to their game. A comeback never seemed to be in the offing.
"Always against them, it's not pretty. It's always full of battles there," said newcomer Michael Frolik, who had two shots on goal and three hits while playing 16:44. "They play the right way and it's never easy against them. You need to play an ugly game and be kind of patient. When you're behind them and they're up, they tighten it up even more defensively."
Here's what Frolik is walking into: The Sabres have terrible special teams, pedestrian goaltending, spotty defense, perhaps two offensive threats in Eichel and Sam Reinhart and now critical injuries to Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson.
Other than that, everything is great.
"Everybody needs to get hungrier to shoot on net," Krueger said. "I think we still give up too many opportunities. ... The other thing will be to get bodies there. There was opportunity around the net where we didn't stick around. With 'Olie' and 'Skins' out, we need to find other ways to create net pressure."
"We just didn't penetrate. I don't think we made good decisions with the puck," Eichel said. "We turned it over too much. That's it."
We're closing in on the point where the same might be said about the Sabres' season. Already.