BUFFALO – When the Sabres enjoy some success, their identity is pretty straightforward, really. They come at you in waves and showcase a rigid defense.
Nothing fancy, right?
“It’s our work, our reloads and our checking detail,” coach Phil Housley said of the Sabres’ identity. “It’s pretty simple. When we do those three things well and on top of that manage the game, we’re a tough team to play against.”
Of course, showcasing that tenacious, tight style helps the Sabres, who open a three-game road trip tonight against the New Jersey Devils, generate offense.
“We’re defense-first, we’re reloading without pucks, we’re committed to keeping the puck out of our net,” Sabres forward Evan Rodrigues said Saturday inside KeyBank Center. “Then our skill takes over, our power play takes over and we win those one-, two-goal games.”
Following a string of ghastly defensive efforts in which the Sabres regularly shirked their duties, they started playing to their identity again late last week.
“We’re not going to go high-flying, five-, six-goal games,” Rodrigues said. “It’s not our identity, it’s not our style. We have to be committed to defending if we want to make a push here.”
After giving up 45 goals over an ugly 10-game stretch, they rebounded with two two-goal victories, beating the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders by scores of 3-1. In between, they played well but lost 3-1 to the Winnipeg Jets.
The much-needed defensive efforts ignited some hope following two months of wildly inconsistent hockey.
That was, of course, before Friday’s wretched 6-2 loss to the New York Rangers, the end of a seven-game home stand.
“We took a step back (Friday),” Sabres winger Jason Pominville said following practice inside Harborcenter. “We fell back into old habits.”
The Sabres looked downright awful at times, letting the Rangers buzz around their zone. Housley even called his team “soft.”
“We addressed it today,” Housley said of Friday’s weak performance. “We had a good practice, spirits were up. It’s a time to reboot, refocus and get ready. We understand when we play the way we can play and have our details in order, we’re a very good hockey team. When we’re not, we seem to get results that we get last game.”
Pominville said: “We just have to keep harping on (defense). When we did harp on it we played better. (It) slipped away from us last game. I don’t know if it’s because we thought it was going to happen automatically, but it’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of focus.”
He added: “We spent too much time in our zone. We made them look good by not closing quick enough and giving them too much time.”
So many of the Sabres’ problems have snowballed, most notably the defensive play.
“That’s part of, one, being a young team, and, two, kind of controlling our emotions,” Rodrigues said. “When you ride the roller coaster, that’s when things start to snowball.”
The Sabres’ inability to maintain an even keel – they feel too high after wins and too low following losses – has hurt them all season.
“You can’t dwell on a game like (Friday), because it’s not going to do anything for you,” Rodrigues said. “You have to learn from it. … When you get a little too emotional and you worry too much about a bad game, I think that’s when you start to get down on yourself, confidence kind of goes out the window and that’s when things start to snowball.”
Only a handful of Sabres have played meaningful hockey games this late in the season. Fifteen players on the 10th-place club have never appeared in an NHL playoff game.
The Sabres are still raw, and it often shows.
“It’s not going to get easier,” Pominville said. “It is a learning process. You have to be focused every night. You have to earn it every night, especially this time of year. You’re battling against teams. Everyone is fighting for positioning for certain reasons as well. … I feel like we have the group to rebound because we’ve done it before.”
The Sabres also play Tuesday against the Florida Panthers before closing the trip Thursday versus the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Sabres haven’t played a road game since Jan. 30, a 1-0 loss to the Dallas Stars.