By Bill Hoppe
A few years back, if Drew Stafford had been mired in a six-game goal drought, if he had scored just once in 14 contests, the Sabres winger would be taking the slump hard.
Doubts might be rattling around inside his head by now, the frustration overwhelming him.
Over time, however, Stafford, a six-year veteran, said he’s matured and learned to handle adversity differently and better.
“One hundred percent. Absolutely,” Stafford said Thursday, barely letting the question leave a reporter’s mouth. “You just got to focus on things you can control such as your habits, how you’re working and not getting distracted. I know that if things aren’t going well for me, all I need to focus on is making sure I’m strong on the puck, making sure I’m skating and everything else will take care of itself.
“Whereas in years past, I think it’s a little bit of a maturity thing, where a younger guy, you don’t quite know how to handle the frustration as well. You can let that creep into your game.”
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Stafford’s dealt with his slumps better “at times.”
“I think there’s still a little frustration in his game when things aren’t going well,” Ruff said inside the First Niagara Center after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s tilt in Carolina against the Hurricanes.
Stafford’s a 26-year-old assistant captain now. He underachieved much of his first four seasons, until a breakout 2010-11 campaign in which he tallied 31 goals and 52 points in only 62 games earned him a new four-year, $16 million contract.
Entering tonight, the American has four goals and 11 points in 18 games, an 18-score, 50-point pace. He’s tallied only once since Oct. 18. He’s experiencing his 17th stretch of at least six straight goalless games in his career.
If Stafford’s fretting, he’s not showing it outwardly. He’s been upbeat all season. Not long ago, the disappointment would’ve been visible on his face. These days, he realizes hockey is as much mental as physical.
“You learn how to handle certain situations and stress and pressure and frustration knowing that you’re wasting energy on negative stuff,” Stafford said. “That’s not going to help you at all.”
Shooting and going to the net will only help Stafford, an elite power forward at times. He already has 48 shots, 2.7 a game. That 219-shot pace would shatter his previous career high by 36. He averaged 2.9 shots a game last year.
“I’m always trying to look to shoot,” said Stafford, who had three assists last Friday. “It’s one of those things, especially when things aren’t going well, you got to make sure you’re constantly trying to hang around the net and battle for loose pucks there.”
Stafford hasn’t scored since Nov. 4. He was close Wednesday during the Sabres’ 5-3 loss to New Jersey, misfiring into goalie Martin Brodeur’s glove.
“If it’s six inches higher, it’s a goal,” Ruff said. “Some of the goals are going to have to be where you’re driving the paint and looking for that opportunity that may bounce off you or maybe that little rebound opportunity.”
Stafford looked sharp later in the game beside Brad Boyes, his third center in three games. Ruff switched Boyes, a regular winger, from the fourth line to the No. 2 pivot in an attempt to ignite some secondary scoring.
Derek Roy had played well with Stafford and Ville Leino, earning a promotion to the No. 1 line between scorching wingers Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek. Luke Adam barely lasted a game in Roy’s old spot.
Almost a quarter of the way into the season, the Sabres’ scoring is too top heavy. Pominville, Roy and Vanek have accounted 24 of their 53 goals (45 percent) so far.
“I’ve definitely been struggling,” said Boyes, who has two goals this year, none in the last seven games. “A couple of us have been struggling this year. I think that secondary scoring takes the pressure of Van, Pom. Now with Roysie going, we need us to be good.”
When Boyes began playing center again shortly after his arrival in March, his offense vanished. Still, the Sabres kept winning, and Boyes played a vital role, Ruff said.
“If you look at the run we were on, Brad was playing center for us,” Ruff said. “And I didn’t see any immediate correlation between him playing the wing and more opportunities. I think if you asked him, if he said, ‘Does this mean I get a little more ice time?’ He welcomes that opportunity.”
With Phoenix in town Saturday, the Sabres finish their fifth set of a whopping 21 back-to-back games this season.
“It’s something we’ve talked about when it comes to scheduling,” Ruff said. “Even some of the teams in our division are Thursdays-Saturdays, which you would say is a little of a competitive advantage. We know what our schedule’s like. It’s been like that for a long time. I think part of the reason at times we’ve tried to be a four-line team is to prepare ourselves for our energy levels in these types of situations.”