WINNIPEG – Coach Ralph Krueger has spent lots of time this season pushing aside all the negative history surrounding the Buffalo Sabres and trying to forge new chapters. He's about to have his biggest test yet.
The Sabres' playoff chances are nil, barring some major winning streak. They've annually been one of the NHL's worst teams in March in recent years, and the the month that comes in like a lion starts here Tuesday night against the Winnipeg Jets. Krueger said he is expecting his team to have the same roar it has shown at times in all three games it has lost on its current road trip.
"It's just really important we keep communicating," Krueger said after practice in Bell MTS Place. "Lots of communication going on between the coaches and the players and the players and each other. And we keep everybody active so nobody starts feeling sorry for themselves and loses their eye on the ball. And the ball is that we're developing a culture here. We're developing an identity and we all believe in that."
This was a trip that could have kept the Sabres in the playoff race well into March. Instead, they lost at Colorado and Vegas when both games were tied at the second intermission. Then they fell apart Saturday in Arizona as a 2-0 lead turned into a 5-2 defeat.
"One of our pieces we need to learn right here and right now," Krueger said, "is managing games and managing momentum in games when it's on our side, like it was for us in both those games and we let it slip away. ... It was probably us wanting it too much."
Krueger said his club's defensive breakdowns on the trip have been a product of pushing too hard at the offensive end of the ice.
"We've felt comfortable in the games but instead of maintaining the defensive stance, we've been pushing too hard to score to force the wins in Colorado and Vegas, especially," Krueger said. "And we slipped defensively, instead of continuing to frustrate the opposition by neutralizing them defensively and letting the offense grow out of that."
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While the Sabres' forward lines will stay the same for Tuesday's game, meaning Michael Frolik will remain the healthy scratch, there could be a change on defense.
Krueger wasn't ready to reveal his plans but Lawrence Pilut, a healthy scratch the last two games after a recall from Rochester, was paired with Rasmus Ristolainen at practice and could be getting back in the lineup. Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju were sharing shifts with Jake McCabe, and Miller could be scratched in favor of Pilut. If Miller plays, it would be his 300th career NHL game.
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The Sabres are 6-3 in their last nine games against the Jets, including their 2-1 win Feb. 23 in KeyBank Center. They have not played here in more than 15 months, since a 2-1 shootout win on Nov. 16, 2018. That came in the midst of Buffalo's 10-game winning streak that tied the franchise record.
Winnipeg is in the thick of what is a ridiculous race for the Western Conference wild cards. When play started Monday, there were five teams within three points and the Jets were tied for the second spot with Nashville – but the Predators had three games in hand.
Winnipeg winger Patrik Laine did not practice Monday due to a lower-body injury and his status will be determined at Tuesday's morning skate. Laine is third on the team this season in both goals (26) and points (59).
Top-pair defenseman Josh Morrissey, a late scratch for the last week's loss in Buffalo, is back at practice and said here Monday he should be fine for Tuesday night.