In search of: Team needs to win on the road
If the Buffalo Sabres are to make an unprecedented run to snap their eight-year playoff drought, they will have to figure out how to win away from KeyBank Center.
Eight of their final 16 games are on the road, beginning with a two-game trip to Chicago and Denver. The Sabres (30-28-8) will face the Blackhawks (27-309) Thursday night in the United Center, followed by a Saturday afternoon game against the Colorado Avalanche.
Neither opponent is occupying a playoff spot. However, the Sabres have gone 3-14-3 in their last 20 games away from Buffalo, including seven consecutive losses. They haven’t won a road game since Jan. 29 in Columbus.
“It goes back to simplifying our game and playing a simple road game,” Housley said following the Sabres’ practice Wednesday in KeyBank Center. “Sometimes that’s just relieving pressure out of our defensive zone and getting pucks out. Managing pucks through the neutral zone and getting pucks in, trying to establish our forecheck and I think the simplification of our game. Again, we talked when we don’t have the puck, just having our guard up.”
Entering Wednesday’s games, the Sabres’ power play at home ranked 10th in the NHL, compared to 26th on the road. They have posted a minus-26 goal differential over their last 20 road games, allowing four or more goals 12 times.
The Sabres had a pair of epic meltdowns in Toronto last week, allowing three goals in a span of two minutes, four seconds during a 5-3 loss Monday and surrendering four unanswered goals in a 5-2 defeat Saturday.
Buffalo’s 26 points on the road were the third-fewest in the NHL entering Wednesday, while its 19 home wins were tied with Montreal and Washington for the fifth-most in the Eastern Conference.
Defensive struggles and problems with puck management have been magnified when the opponent has a number of advantages, including the last line change and crowd noise.
“I think it’s just one of those things that varies,” defenseman Zach Bogosian said of the Sabres’ deteriorating road performance. “We’ve played some good road games and some not-so-good ones. I don’t know if I can really pinpoint one thing. Knowing that maybe the other team has last change at home, making sure puck management and getting pucks deep. Teams thrive on turnovers, especially at home when their crowd gets into it. Puck management would probably be the number one thing.”
While neither Housley nor his players could identify one specific thread, they agreed the lack of attention to detail has been the Sabres’ downfall, whether it’s taking a bad penalty in the first period or a missed defensive coverage.
The Blackhawks entered Wednesday nine points back of the second wild-card playoff spot, but Patrick Kane is in the Hart Trophy conversation. Chicago defeated the Sabres, 7-3, in Buffalo last month.
Additionally, the Avalanche (29-26-12) beat the Sabres, 6-1, in October and are two points behind Minnesota for eighth in the Western Conference. Rather than discussing their road struggles, the Sabres are focused on cleaning up the myriad of errors that have caused them to tumble down the standings.
“We’ve been good at times,” Jason Pominville said. “At times, again, we get away from what leads to us being a good team. I don’t know. I wouldn’t even be able to tell you what our away record is right now. It’s not something that we tend to say, ‘Oh, we’re going on the road, we haven’t been good on the road.’ We just go out there, try to play and bring the best version of ourselves. Do that to help the team in any circumstance.”
Bogosian and forward Vladimir Sobotka returned to practice Wednesday and could be available to play Thursday night in Chicago.
Bogosian was a late scratch Monday against Edmonton because of a lower-body injury, while Sobotka has missed the past three games with a lowerbody injury. Their returns likely will draw Johan Larsson and Casey Nelson out of the Sabres’ lineup.
“We’ll see how they respond from practice,” Housley said Wednesday. “Both of them looked very good out there, but we’ll make that decision tomorrow.”
Rochester winger Remi Elie was suspended one game by the AHL for an illegal check to the head during the Amerks’ 4-1 loss to Syracuse on Sunday.
Elie, who has five goals among eight points in 10 games since joining the Amerks, will sit Friday night against Bridgeport.