BUFFALO – Given the Sabres dramatically improved their roster this season, 20 or 25 goals seemed reasonable for winger Matt Moulson following two down years.
Heck, with two creative centers like rookie Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly available to feed him the puck, even 30 scores, a big number Moulson hit three straight seasons in Long Island skating beside superstar John Tavares, looked attainable.
So much for those thoughts. Moulson, 32, is battling a career-long 20-game goal drought entering tonight’s home tilt against the Anaheim Ducks inside the First Niagara Center.
The veteran hasn’t scored since Nov. 1 and has only four goals in 32 games, a stunning 10-goal pace over a full season.
What has happened to Moulson, who’s in the second season of a five-year, $25 million contract?
“I think he’s probably searching for that answer as well,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said Wednesday. “He’s definitely feeling a little gun shy, a little lack of confidence in those situations. You look to the last few games, he’s had some opportunities in the areas where he has put those pucks in the net.
“I know he’s searching for that answer right now. It’s one we need him to come up with. He’s a guy we count on and need to count on … in those areas to produce for our team.”
Moulson, however, hasn’t produced much for the Sabres in three seasons, compiling only 28 goals and 82 points in 153 games. He scored a career-low 13 goals and 41 points last year, when he received a mulligan considering the Sabres fielded the NHL’s worst lineup.
This season was supposed to be much different.
“I think I’ve had a chance to play with a lot of great players,” Moulson said, “so I just have to find a way to produce.”
He played with Eichel, who’s living with him this season, and Evander Kane, another former 30-goal scorer, in Tuesday’s 2-0 loss to New Jersey.
Moulson, who’s at his best around the net, understands any type of goal will boost his waning confidence.
“It’s amazing the goal off the leg or off the foot can elevate your confidence pretty quickly,” he said.
But without even a “cheap” goal in the last six weeks, Moulson has started pressing and gripping “the stick a little too tight in front of the net,” he said. He knows he needs to relax there, a place he’s missed some strong scoring chances recently.
“I think sometimes you want to score so badly you shove it back into the goalie instead of maybe trying to make a move and not such a hard play,” he said.
Moulson did that Tuesday, missing a prime power-play opportunity in front of Devils goalie Cory Schneider while under pressure midway through the third period.
He tied his season-high with four shots Tuesday but has only 58 this season, a 148-shot pace that would be a new low. He had a career-high 237 shots in 2010-11.
At least Moulson was on the ice late in a close game Tuesday. A night earlier in Detroit, Bylsma benched him for the final 7:17 of the Sabres’ 2-1 comeback win.
Despite the frustrations, Moulson, one of the most affable Sabres, doesn’t show much negative emotion. Walk into the dressing room, and there’s a good chance he’ll be smiling and laughing with his teammates.
“I don’t think being negative does anyone any good – myself or any of my teammates included,” Moulson said.
But Bylsma knows the streak has been wearing on Moulson.
“Regardless of his posture, (he’s) extremely hard on himself,” Bylsma said. “Even in the game, I might not see it from a greater distance away, but when he has an opportunity to make a play or situation where he can add and he doesn’t, he’s down on himself. I know he’s spent a lot of time thinking about how he can be better and how he can add, and that’s what he needs to work for.”