BUFFALO – After starting slowly this season, Sabres winger Kyle Okposo found a groove around late October, scoring five goals and 12 points over an 18-game stretch.
Not surprisingly, Okposo’s production coincided with the Sabres’ surge to the top of the NHL. The veteran usually skates on the second or third line, so his offense provided some critical secondary scoring.
Then like most of the Sabres, Okposo, 30, suddenly stopped scoring. Since their 10-game winning streak ended, he has recorded zero points in five straight losses (0-3-2).
“I expect a lot more of myself offensively,” said Okposo said Monday after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s tilt against the Los Angeles Kings inside KeyBank Center. “I don’t think I’m playing poorly. I think for me, personally, I just have to work that much harder to get out of it and just trust myself, trust my instincts. I’ve gone through a lot of periods in my career like this. I find that you can’t just dwell on it.”
Not too long ago, scoring depth was one of the Sabres’ strengths. Sure, like many teams, they were a little top heavy, with captain Jack Eichel and winger Jeff Skinner providing a big chunk of the offense.
Still, Okposo was on his normal 20-goal, 45-point pace. Thanks to some time on the first line, winger Jason Pominville, 36, looked like he might hit the 30-goal mark again.
Most notably, the defense, which needed 25 games to score its first goal a year ago, kept scoring and producing offense. Every regular defenseman recorded a goal by Nov. 19.
Having scored 88 goals through their first 30 games, a healthy 2.93 goals an outing, the Sabres are on pace to score 241 times. It would be their most prolific offensive season since scoring 240 goals in 2010-11. They haven’t even cracked the 200-goal mark since 2011-12.
But in the last four games, the Sabres’ first line – Eichel, Skinner and Sam Reinhart – has scored all eight of their goals. Eichel has scored the last four goals. During their five-game skid, those players have accounted for 10 of the team’s 12 goals.
“It’s been difficult,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said of the lack of secondary scoring. “Obviously, we’ve sort of rode Jack’s line for a while.”
Consider some of the current struggles:
– Pominville is pointless in his last six outings and goalless in his last eight. Overall, he has compiled nine goals and 18 points in 28 games.
– Rookie center Casey Mittelstadt has just one assist in the last seven games and one goal in the last nine.
– Winger Conor Sheary is goalless in his last 10 contests after scoring in three straight games.
– Forward Patrik Berglund, who began the season as the No. 2 center, has scored just two goals in 24 games this season.
– Forward Evan Rodrigues has scored one goal in 24 appearances this season.
“We have the depth to be able to create more,” Pominville said. “We should want to create more and want to score more as long as it doesn’t prevent us from defending well. … We’re also giving up too much. I don’t know if it’s from us trying to score and thinking about it maybe a little bit more.”
As Pominville said, the Sabres’ defense has sometimes become porous during their skid. After falling 4-3 in overtime to Toronto last Tuesday, they broke down again and again in Saturday afternoon’s 6-2 loss to Philadelphia.
“In the last couple games, we’re giving up too many odd-man rushes,” Pominville said. “Playing against Toronto and Philly, who are two great rush teams, they’ll make you pay, and they did. So I think it’s having a fine line of wanting to create more but also being more responsible defensively.”
Housley said: “If we can continue to check and play away from the puck better, I think they’ll have opportunities with it. We got away from that last game.”
Given the recent struggles, Monday seemed like a day Housley might overhaul his lines. After he did that Oct. 19 in Los Angeles, the Sabres won 14 of their next 18 games.
But Housley only made minor changes to his forward combinations during Monday’s practice inside HarborCenter.
Okposo took Pominville’s spot at right wing beside Mittelstadt and Sheary. Meanwhile, Pominville skated beside center Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson, who had been on the fourth line.
“We’ve changed lines even when we’ve been winning games,” Housley said. “We’re trying to find the right balance, just moving some guys around.”
Housley also promoted rookie Rasmus Dahlin to the top power-play unit beside defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.
The power play has struggled over the last six games, converting just one of 14 opportunities. The Sabres aren’t even drawing many penalties.
“When we’re on the attack, our neutral zone transition’s a lot faster and … that will … maybe force some other teams to take penalties,” Housley said.