Kyle Okposo (21) battles Columbus’ Ryan Murray (27) and Sergei Bobrovsky last Tuesday. ©2019, Hickling Images

Reeling Sabres hope new lines, defense pairs can help ignite them

BUFFALO – Sooner or later, coach Phil Housley needed to make some significant changes, right? The Sabres have fallen from first overall to three points out of a playoff spot.

Having compiled an awful 8-14-4 mark in their last 26 games, their marathon slump has surpassed the two-month mark. In their last 10 outings, they’re a dreadful 3-7.

In recent games, the Sabres have often shown little interest in playing defense and struggled to score goals. Their power play has also provided little or nothing.

So Monday inside HarborCenter, three days after an embarrassing 7-3 home loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, Housley overhauled everything, switching up his forward lines, defense pairs and power play units.

Why blow it up now?

“We’re 3-7 in our last 10, No. 1,” Housley said after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s tilt against the Minnesota Wild inside KeyBank Center. “We tried different combinations within the last 10 games, 15 games. I’m trying to find a balance, maybe a spark, continuity within the lines. Those are all subject to change.”

Most notably, Housley broke up NHL All-Stars Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner, one of the league’s premier center-wing duos much of the season. Eichel and Skinner have combined to score 48 goals and 101 points.

“Some things get stale at times,” Housley said. “Maybe you just need a new look.”

So Eichel centered left wing Conor Sheary and Kyle Okposo. Skinner, meanwhile, skated at left wing beside center Casey Mittelstadt and Jason Pominville. Vladimir Sobotka pivoted left wing Zemgus Girgensons and Tage Thompson.

“A lot goes into playing on a team,” Skinner said. “If we’re going to have success, we’re going to have to have success as a unit – all four lines, all six D, both goalies. For me, I just want to be a piece of the puzzle.”

The Sabres also recalled high-scoring winger C.J. Smith from the Rochester Americans on Monday. Smith practiced at left wing beside center Evan Rodrigues and Sam Reinhart.

On the blue line, Housley paired rookie Rasmus Dahlin beside Rasmus Ristolainen, an intriguing duo featuring the Sabres’ highest-scoring defensemen. Rookie Lawrence Pilut moved beside Zach Bogosian. Marco Scandella and Jake McCabe also formed a new pair.

“I don’t think you really expect stuff like that,” Okposo said of the overall changes. “It just happens and you just roll with it. I’ve been around long enough to see stuff like that.”

Housley put Dahlin on the No. 1 power play beside Eichel with Skinner, Reinhart and Mittelstadt up front. On the No. 2 unit, Thompson and Ristolainen manned points with Sheary, Okposo and Rodrigues up front.

Over the last 18 games, the Sabres have converted just 10.6 percent of their chances on the man advantage (five of 47).

The last time Housley made drastic changes to the Sabres, Oct. 19 in Los Angeles, they went on a five-week tear, starting with a 5-1 win against the Kings the next day.

“Everybody had a role, an identity,” Housley said of what happened then. “But in saying that, I think we were playing the game the right way back then, making good puck decisions, managing our game, our checking detail was really solid, and we got to get back to that.

“You can mix the lines up all you want, but if you don’t manage a game, you don’t have a respect for your own net, you’re going to get the same result.”

Rodrigues said the Sabres “got down to the basics” in October.

“We didn’t cheat the game, we played on the right side of the puck,” Rodrigues said. “We were doing all the little things right. We weren’t worried about scoring or points. We were just all doing the right thing, all being on the defensive side of pucks and we all waited for our opportunities and we capitalized on them.”

Like Housley, Okposo understands switching some lines isn’t a magical fix for the Sabres.

“Different lines are going to be different lines, but we have to play better without the puck and we have to defend better,” Okposo said. “No matter what line combinations you throw out there, if you don’t do that you’re not going to win many games. I don’t think we can lose sight of that.

“We have to play the right way. I think the work ethic has really been there for the most part this year. … Our attention to detail needs to be a little bit better.”

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