Kyle Okposo is excited for his home debut. ©2016, Dan Hickling, Olean Times Herald

Sabres know they must improve at home

BUFFALO – It’s simple, really. If the Sabres have any hope of making the playoffs, they must become a strong home team, something they haven’t been in years.

The Sabres, who host the Minnesota Wild tonight at KeyBank Center, are 0-1 at home this season. They went 16-19-6 last season, when only two teams earned fewer home wins.

“It’s something we didn’t do last year and something we talked about doing this year, making this a hard place to play and getting this building no one wants to play,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said this morning.

These days, some fans are feeling nostalgic remembering the Sabres’ rollicking 10-0 start 10 years ago. Back then, the rink was raucous as the potent Sabres seemingly found a new way to win every night.

But opponents haven’t dreaded coming into KeyBank Center in a long time. The Sabres haven’t finished over .500 at home since they went 11-10-3 in 2012-13.

“We want it to be difficult for teams to come in here,” Sabres winger Tyler Ennis said. “We want people to hate playing against us. That’s got to start right off the bat every game. You got to set the tone.”

The mood in the building, of course, suffers with so much losing. Ennis, the longest-tenured Sabre, knows when KeyBank Center is “rocking, it’s a great atmosphere.”

“Everyone’s behind us,” he said. “It creates a difficult environment for opposing teams to come into.”

The Sabres finished 19-17-5 on the road last season. Combine that mark with even a decent home record and they likely would’ve secured a playoff spot. So far, they’re 1-1-2 on the road this season.

“Our record on the road the past two years has been respectable,” Bylsma said.

Sabres winger Kyle Okposo, who will make his home debut tonight, knows winning at home would resonate throughout the community.

“I think it would kind of revitalize and throw some energy into downtown and really get the people going and give them something to follow,” he said. “They took a big step last year. We got to continue to build on that.”

Some other Sabres notes:

Goalie Anders Nilsson will make his second straight start subbing for Robin Lehner, who’s still sick. Lehner has been home four days. Bylsma said he’s improving and could join the team Friday.

Nilsson impressed in his first start this season Tuesday, stopping 38 shots in the Sabres’ 4-3 shootout loss in Philadelphia.

– Okposo, who signed a seven-year, $42 million contract July 1, missed the Oct. 13 opener with a knee bruise. He has one goal and four points in his first four games.

“Definitely excited,” Okposo said of his debut. “(I) played the one game here in the preseason. First preseason game was really jittery. But now that I got a few games under my belt, there will definitely be less. But it’s still going to be fun having that atmosphere.

“Every time you play at home, you always get that little bit extra energy, experiencing it for the first time is going to be cool.”

Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, who turns 22 years old today, will also play his 200th NHL game

“It happens more and more in our league, where players are playing their third and fourth and fifth years when they’re under the age of 23, and Rasmus is one of those guys, he’s turning 22 years old,” Bylsma said. “I’m trying to look back where I was at when I was 22 years old, and it wasn’t at 200 games in the National Hockey League, that’s for sure.”

When Bylsma was 22 in 1992-93, he played for the ECHL Greensboro Monarchs, compiling 25 goals and 60 points in 60 appearances. He even earned two AHL games with the Rochester Americans.

– The Sabres, losers of three straight games (0-1-2), haven’t lost four straight since Feb. 4-11 (0-2-2).

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