The high-priced Buffalo Sabres’ tumble from the top of the Eastern Conference to its bottom is just as perplexing to them as it is to most outside observers.
”We’re living through it,” right wing Drew Stafford said Monday before the team departed for Tuesday’s game at the New Jersey Devils. ”We’re the ones on the ice, and we’re the ones responsible for the games. It’s been like this for a while, and you have to answer for it and answer why.”
Amid growing calls for a shake-up, the Sabres returned home briefly for practice after losing the first five games of a seven-game road trip, their longest of the season. Buffalo is just 1-7-1 in its past nine overall, and the NHL’s highest-paid team is in danger of falling into sole possession of 15th place in the East just two months after being a point out of the No. 1 spot.
Since blanking the Carolina Hurricanes 1-0 on Nov. 18 to move to 12-7-0 on the season, the Sabres have gone 7-17-5. They entered Monday tied with Carolina for last place in the East with 43 points, but they’ve played two fewer games than the Hurricanes.
Buffalo is also on a franchise-record 12-game road regulation losing streak, the longest such stretch for a team since the Chicago Blackhawks lost 16 in a row in regulation away from home during the 2003-04 season, according to STATS, LLC.
Though the NHL’s single-season record of 37 consecutive regulation defeats on the road set by the 1974-75 Washington Capitals appears out of reach, the Sabres are within striking distance of their franchise record of 23 straight winless games on the road (15 losses and 8 ties in 1971-72).
”We’ve had to deal with a lot of different circumstances with injuries and guys coming in and out of the lineup, but right now we have enough guys in there to win games,” captain Jason Pominville said. ”It’s been disappointing and tough.
”It’s not easy having to talk everyday about it.”
There have been a number of things that have contributed to the free fall. Injuries have plagued the team all season, and of the 26 goalies who have played 29 or more games, Ryan Miller’s 3.15 goals-against average is the worst.
But Buffalo’s inability to score has been the main culprit for the slide.
The Sabres’ 115 goals (excluding two shootout-winning goals) are the fifth fewest in the league, and they’ve scored more than twice just seven times in their last 25 games.
”The frustration of scoring has led to some players cheating on the offensive side of the puck, which has led to poor defensive play,” coach Lindy Ruff said.
During their current five-game skid, Buffalo has been outscored 23-7.
”It’s not helping our game, and we’ve probably lost a lot of games because of our offense,” Pominville said. ”It’s a little surprising. We haven’t found a way. I think we’ve all had opportunities that we’d want back.”
As the losses mount, so does the public’s impatience with Ruff and general manager Darcy Regier. Fan support for them has plummeted for the duo that came into the organization in 1997, and there has been mounting pressure on owner Terry Pegula to get rid of either one or both.
Ruff shrugged off the criticism following Monday’s practice.
”I’m not worried at all. … I don’t listen and I don’t read,” he said.
The Sabres will get some help when defenseman Christian Ehrhoff returns against the Devils after missing 11 games because of a rib injury.
”Hopefully we can get out of this hole,” Ehrhoff said. ”It’s been tough to watch and see the guys being down and not be able to help. I’ll try to maybe throw a joke out or something to get the guys going and try and get the confidence level up again.”