BUFFALO – To witness the Sabres’ blueprint for success, go back to the first 20 minutes of Saturday’s 3-1 win in Toronto, a period in which they jumped out to a 3-0 lead by playing fast and hard against the Maple Leafs.
“If you look at the first period in Toronto, we didn’t do anything special,” Sabres goalie Robin Lehner said Monday inside KeyBank Center.
The Sabres dictated the pace by pouncing on loose pucks. Their shifts were short.
Everyone, defenseman Josh Gorges said, rolled over and kept doing the same thing.
“When you do that, you put the other team back on their heels, you get some momentum, you start feeling good and you just kind of go wave after wave,” he said after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s road tilt against the Ottawa Senators.
That first period proved the Sabres can execute coach Dan Bylsma’s system.
The excitement over that win, of course, was short-lived. The Sabres looked downright awful at times in Sunday’s 4-2 home loss to Vancouver.
“Part of the frustration is we have a group of guys that can do it,” Sabres captain Brian Gionta said. “We show we can do it. We know we can do it. It’s just doing it day in and day out.”
Following the troubling setback, Lehner passionately called out his teammates for their inability to follow the game plan, which he believes is “disrespectful” to the coaches.
Lehner said Monday he directed the comments at everyone, including himself, not specific players. But he didn’t back off them.
“You got to learn to do your job and not do too much,” Lehner said. “Sometimes you want to do too much and it hurts you. It’s the same with my game. … We just got to start sharing the workload, sharing the structure out there and it’s going to be fine. …
“When we talk about certain things and we go over certain things and we end up not doing it, I don’t think it’s something any of us accept. We’re tired of coming to the rink after a good game and just (throwing) it away.”
The Sabres, who rank seventh in the Atlantic Division, blew an opportunity to creep within three points of a playoff spot. They’ve teased throughout the season, earning some impressive victories against strong opponents.
But they haven’t won more than three straight games. They stumble whenever they have an opportunity to charge up the standings.
“In pretty much every one of those situations we haven’t risen to the occasion,” Bylsma said.
Still, players say the Sabres possess enough talent to make the playoffs.
“I still believe this group is a playoff team,” Gorges said. “We’ve played against the top teams in the league and we always play well. There’s lot of hockey left to be played.”
To make the playoffs – sportclubstats.com gives them just a 4.8 percent chance – the Sabres have to play like they did early Saturday over the final 26 games.
“We want to be a fast-paced, in-your-face kind of team, and that’s getting into that offensive zone and being able to grind teams and tire them out,” Gionta said. “It may not happen in the first period, but by the end of the second, the third, that’s when you start to take over.”
Lehner believes successful NHL teams start by grinding and doing the small things right.
“Then it opens up,” he said. “The skills comes out, the speed comes out and all these other things click. It doesn’t work the other way around. When you try to do maybe the skill things first, the other teams pick you apart. Their structure will pick you apart.”
If the Sabres can play with structure, what makes them get away from it?
“Largely the desire to do too much,” Bylsma said. “Sometimes the natural inclination is to try do everything you can when you touch the puck or you’re on the ice and do too much. That’s kind of when we get off our game.”
Gorges said: “Until we decide as a group we’re going to play a certain way … and we’re all going to play the same way, that’s when we’ll have continued success. After a loss, we knew the magnitude of the game (Sunday), the position we’re in, guys are going to be upset, and rightfully so. I think that shows that guys care.
“I don’t think that anyone is sitting in the room pointing fingers at the next guy saying, ‘It’s your fault, not mine.’ … The only way to get better and to move ahead is for all of us to buy in.”