BUFFALO – This upcoming stretch will likely decide the Sabres’ season. They play nine of their first 10 games following the NHL All-Star break at KeyBank Center, where they’ve compiled a terrific 14-6-3 mark this season.
The odds, of course, are slim the Sabres, who trail the Florida Panthers by 10 points for the Atlantic Division’s final playoff spot, can roar back into the race.
But given their upcoming slate of home games and winger Jeff Skinner’s imminent return, the Sabres have a splendid opportunity to rattle off some wins.
Skinner, out the last 10 games with an upper-body injury, possesses the talent to help ignite the Sabres.
He practiced Sunday afternoon inside LECOM Harborcenter, his first session since Boston Bruins star David Pastrnak hit his right shoulder Dec. 27. He is officially day-to-day.
“I felt good,” Skinner said after the Sabres convened following a seven-day break for their bye and the all-star break. “I was the only one who wasn’t rusty out there. I felt really good.”
Coach Ralph Krueger sounded optimistic Skinner, who had been skating on his own, can play in Tuesday’s home game against the Ottawa Senators, the Sabres’ first contest since Jan. 18.
“Jeff looks really, really good today,” Krueger said. “He felt good. Obviously, his first time back in the bigger group after multiple weeks. We have to be patient with the process, but the first reports are that he feels strong and ready to go so let’s hope it continues down this path for the game on Tuesday.”
The fifth-place Sabres, who have earned 51 points through 49 games, played .500 hockey without Skinner, going 5-5-0. Realistically, they must earn about 16 of the next 20 points to have a shot to get in the postseason hunt.
Everyone they’re chasing seems to keep winning.
The third-place Panthers have won six straight games. The second-place Tampa Bay Lightning, meanwhile, are 12-2-0 in its last 14 contests.
The Sabres trail the Carolina Hurricanes, who have won two consecutive games, by 11 points for the Eastern Conference’s final wild card spot.
Krueger said he wants to ignore the standings.
“What you have to do is take care of your own business in the National Hockey League and we’ve put ourselves in this position and we need to dig ourselves out of it here,” he said. “I think with the home stand coming up here, we have (an) opportunity to get contact again to the race and that’s what this season’s about, is being in the race. We’re not in it right now. …
“It’s more important we continue to concentrate on the process and don’t get distracted by other things that are going on like the standings taking off a little bit without us playing. But others won’t play this week and we need to take advantage of that.”
Carolina, Skinner’s old team, has its bye this week.
Skinner, an all-star in 2018-19, morphed into a lethal scoring threat upon his arrival from the Hurricanes last season. A year ago on this date, he had already scored 30 goals in 48 games.
While Skinner, 27, cooled off down the stretch, he still hit the 40-goal in the season finale.
Skinner has struggled at times this season, compiling only 11 goals and 19 points in 39 outings. Right now, he has an 11-game goal drought. He scored his last goal Dec. 2.
But in his last several appearances, Skinner looked more like himself, showcasing his tenacious style and generating more offense.
“There were four, five games at the end where we really felt he was finding his rhythm and the goals were just going to come,” Krueger said. “That was the final piece that was missing. As a result, the injury at that time was very disappointing because it (felt) like he was in that space. I think he’s had some good time here to observe what the game is that we’re playing and need to play.
“His re-entry will be exciting for us. It gives us more depth in scoring and more offensive punch.”
Skinner said: “I felt like I was playing well. I thought our line was sort of clicking a little bit more.”
Last season, Skinner formed a dynamic tandem at left wing beside center Jack Eichel, who missed Sunday’s practice traveling back from the NHL All-Star Game in St. Louis.
But Krueger has kept Skinner with center Marcus Johansson most of this season, electing to put rookie Victor Olofsson with Eichel.
Olofsson is week-to-week with a lower-body injury that has shelved him the last seven games.
Perhaps with the season on the line Krueger will reunite Skinner and Eichel.