By Bill Hoppe
BUFFALO — Like many of his Sabres teammates, Drew Stafford got the heck away from hockey for several days during the NHL All-Star break. The struggling winger briefly escaped to Marco Island, Fla., allowing for some rare quiet time to relax, recharge and “block out the noise.”
Following three arduous months in which the Sabres tumbled from a prime playoff spot to the Eastern Conference basement, five days off probably never felt better.
“Sat around with a bunch of retirees,” Stafford said Monday afternoon inside the First Niagara Center.
The 14th-place Sabres, arguably the NHL’s biggest disappointment, gathered again Monday, practicing 75 minutes before flying to Montreal for tonight’s tilt against the Canadiens.
In between, they spoke positively about the time off rejuvenating them, forgetting about the recent past and focusing on the difficult task – one sportsclubstats.com pegs as a 0.6 percent chance – of climbing into a playoff spot.
“We’ve done it before, the same guys,” Stafford said about making up ground. “I know I can speak for myself, I feel energized, I feel (it’s) a fresh start. Based on the attitude in here, seeing everybody after the break, the type of practice we had out there – it’s all business.”
The Sabres began the break on a high note Tuesday, winning a 2-1 shootout in New Jersey, their first road victory in 13 tries. Tonight, with forwards Tyler Ennis and Paul Gaustad possibly back from injuries, they’ll attempt to win consecutive games for the first time since reeling off four straight from Nov. 4-11.
No wonder they only have 45 points (20-24-5), 10 less than the seventh, eighth and ninth teams – Florida, New Jersey and Toronto.
In the six post-lockout seasons, the No. 8 seed has averaged 92 points. Ninety-three points got the New York Rangers that spot last season. The Sabres probably need 95 to reach eighth this season, meaning they must earn 50 points in the final 33 games.
“We didn’t live up to the billing the first part of the season,” said Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, who tried to bring a fresh and positive attitude Monday. “We’re trying to get our feet going, get some traction here. We’re trying to build off the smallest of positives we took before the break. We’ve just got to hang onto and help it move along, get some players back, get some guys some time to recover.
“Hopefully, that word ‘healthy’ being passed around here can help a little bit. Healthy as far as attitude, too – body and mind, get some guys on the ice and get our team in the right place mentally and where we need to be to win hockey games.”
The Sabres haven’t done much of that lately, winning just 10 games in 78 days, a wretched stretch that could have them selling off assets soon.
In an interview with two Buffalo reporters at the all-star festivities, Sabres president Ted Black, while reaffirming his support for coach Lindy Ruff and general manager Darcy Regier, gave the strongest words of any higher-up yet, saying, “Our commitment is to winning, not any particular group of players that are labeled as core. Take that for what it’s worth.”
Anyone might be available for the right price.
“When things aren’t going the way you hoped things would go, you make adjustments. That is an option for management,” Miller said. “For us, it’s not an option to see how we can change parts. We have the parts. We want to make it work with what we have in here and the coaching staff and the training staff. … If they think something’s not working on that level, that’s their business. …
“I’ll tell you this much: Darcy has never made a decision I’ve known about. I don’t think any other player would know about it. I don’t think it’s going to change.”
Miller doesn’t want good efforts to merely “save ourselves from trades.”
“We got a lot of talent on this hockey team. I don’t think it’s been maximized this year for whatever reason,” Miller said. “There’s many different things. We’ve all had articles and discussions about it. No one’s been quite able to figure it out, amongst the (media) and ourselves. The think tank that is Buffalo hasn’t really yielded too many results.”
While the injury-plagued Sabres are slowly getting healthier, Ruff said center Jochen Hecht’s third concussion in 10 months will sideline the 34-year-old a “good period of time.”
Hecht, who was concussed Jan. 22 in St. Louis, has good days and bad days, Ruff said. He implied the German became despondent when he began feeling ill following the morning skate in New Jersey.
“He’s frustrated. Emotionally, he kind of broke down with the whole thing in Jersey,” Ruff said. “It’s tough because he was preparing himself to play, all of sudden he didn’t feel very well.”
In other concussion news, defenseman Brayden McNabb has cleared his baseline test and started practicing.
“It’ll be a period of time to get him ready,” Ruff said about the rookie.
Meanwhile, Ennis (ankle sprain) and Gaustad (upper body) both practiced Monday and should return.
Two sprains this season have shelved Ennis 17 contests each time. He’s played only 15 games, compiling three goals and five points.
“All I want to do is play,” Ennis said. “I’m sick of not playing. … I feel like I haven’t played at all. It’s going to be a fresh start for me, a fresh season. I should have a lot of energy and help the guys.”