By Bill Hoppe
The struggling Sabres can’t use their stunning rash of injuries as an excuse anymore. They’re too healthy now, coach Lindy Ruff said. With center Derek Roy returning from a shoulder ailment Friday, only three regulars are still sidelined.
That’s good a good enough lineup. His underperforming club must win now, Ruff said.
“Right now, we’re healthy enough to win,” Ruff said Friday prior to the Sabres’ 3-2 over the Toronto Maple Leafs inside the First Niagara Center. “We got enough pieces back. We’re not going to blow anybody out, but we’re going to have to win some tight games.
“Yes, that was a big factor. Never before have we had that number out. Right now, I think we’re close enough to win games. So we can eliminate any other excuses.”
The Sabres began the day in 11th place with 41 points, five behind eighth-place Washington for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. They had lost three straight, nine of 11 and eight of 19 (8-14-5) over their last 27 contests when Ruff spoke Friday morning.
A whopping 18 players have been injured this season, including franchise goalie Ryan Miller (concussion, nine games) and star defenseman Tyler Myers (broken wrist, 19 games).
In an interview with the Associated Press, Sabres owner Terry Pegula blamed injuries for his team’s disappointing season.
“I think we’ll get Humpty back together here by the All-Star break and we’ll have our Buffalo Sabres back to the way they were designed to be at the beginning of the season,” Pegula told the AP. “It’s not four or five players. There have been 18 players involved. It’s like, ‘Who’s playing tonight? Who’s on first?’”
The Sabres have lost 192 man games to injury this season. Slowly, however, they’ve been getting healthier.
“We’ve talked about as a team that now is the time,” Ruff said. “We’re able to keep some lines together. It think our defense is playing well enough as a group now. It’ll all start in goal, getting a big effort in goal and moving out forward from there.”
Defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Andrej Sekera (both upper body) have been practicing and could return soon. Winger Tyler Ennis (ankle sprain) hasn’t resumed skating after suffering a setback recently. Recall Colin Stuart (knee) is also injured.
“He’s got duct tape and baling wire out right now,” Pegula said about Ruff. “There’s no way you can evaluate our team. It’s crazy to do it. And if fans don’t understand that, they should look at (injuries) before they jump to conclusions that this team is what it is, because it’s not.”
Sabres winger Thomas Vanek called Pegula “supportive.”
“He knows it’s tough when you have injuries,” Vanek said. “But at the same time, we still have enough guys playing that (need to) play better, myself included. It’s good to hear he’s still behind (us).”
The Sabres, who’ve lost seven straight away games, begin an arduous seven-game trip tonight in New York against the Islanders. They also visit Detroit, Chicago, Winnipeg, St. Louis, New Jersey and Montreal. They don’t play again at home until Feb. 1.
They’re 8-10 on the road while scoring only 34 goals.
“We’re always a pretty good road team,” Vanek said. “Obviously, it’s slipped in the past two months. It doesn’t matter where we played at. Sometimes it’s OK to go away and maybe play a little simpler and just get out of town and get our swagger back, which we haven’t had pretty much (since) the start of the season.”
Realistically, the trip could decide the Sabres’ postseason fate. They’re a bad week or even weekend from falling out of the race completely.
“We can’t look 10 games ahead and say, ‘We need to win eight of 10,’” Vanek said. “Maybe that’s the reality. But for us it’s one game, put it behind us, tomorrow a new game – and that’s how start a streak.”
That streak could start with a full lineup.
“You can’t evaluate what we put together until we get it back together again, and I think we’re pretty close,” Pegula said. “I’m going to jokingly tell everybody that nobody’s allowed to get hurt for the rest of the year. Everybody has to suit up, and there’s no injuries allowed.”
Roy, out the last two games, returned Friday, skating mostly between Nathan Gerbe and Drew Stafford.
The 28-year-old, who’s enduring his worst season with only eight goals and 24 points, hurt the same shoulder during the preseason.
“The first time I did it it hurt a lot more, so it was breath of fresh air it didn’t hurt as much,” Roy said. “It obviously was weak and I couldn’t do much on the exercise. But every day I’ve been bumping it up and trying to do more weights. It’s going good now.”
Will it hamper him the rest of the year?
“We’ll find out,” Roy said. “That’s the main thing, keeping it strong, not straying away from the workouts. I’m doing them every day.”
With Roy back, the Sabres scratched winger Cody McCormick for the third time in five games.