BUFFALO, N.Y. – Brian Campbell prefers not to look at the NHL standings. The defenceman doesn’t need another reminder of how far the once-mighty Buffalo Sabres have fallen.
“When things aren’t going good, sometimes you don’t want to look at them,” Campbell said after practice Friday. “It’s frustrating.”
Not even being named to the Eastern Conference all-star team for a second consecutive year could entirely brighten his mood.
“I think it would be a lot better if we were winning games right now,” said Campbell, Buffalo’s only all-star representative after the team had three last season.
The Sabres find themselves in unusual straits a year after running away with the regular-season title and after producing an NHL-best 105 victories over the previous two years. They’ve become a streaky, inexperienced and banged-up team that’s still searching for its identity after losing co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to free agency in July.
Lacking offence and consistency, the Sabres are enduring an eight-game losing streak (0-4-4) after passing the midpoint of their season with a 3-2 shootout loss at Ottawa on Thursday.
“I think the last couple of games, our effort was top notch,” Campbell said, referring also to a 2-1 shootout loss at New Jersey on Tuesday. “But one point every game isn’t going to get you moving up the standings too quickly.”
Still, the Sabres (19-18-5) aren’t out of the playoff picture and have time to regroup. With 43 points, Buffalo’s tied with Florida for 11th in the East, but only two points behind the eighth-place New York Islanders, and five behind sixth-place Philadelphia.
“I still believe in this team,” Campbell said. “This is a playoff team. For us, it’s getting in there and then seeing what happens.”
How quickly the objectives have changed. A year ago at this time, the Sabres’ only concern was not peaking too early, something which eventually did affect them in May, when they were knocked out in five games by Ottawa in the East finals.
Now, the goal is battling to simply make the playoffs. And it won’t be easy.
After hosting New Jersey on Saturday, Buffalo plays eight of its next nine games on the road. February is a busy month, with Buffalo playing 15 games in 29 days.
In order for them to make a run, the Sabres are going to have to rediscover their offence, which has gone ice cold.
Buffalo’s managed nine goals during its eight-game skid, and converted a mere two of 26 power-play chances. The team’s top scorers are either hurt – Derek Roy (shoulder), Tim Connolly (groin) and Maxim Afinogenov (groin) – or slumping.
Thomas Vanek, who signed a seven-year $50 million contract in July, ranks fourth on the team with 12 goals, and is sixth with 25 points in 42 games. That’s a significant drop for someone who, last season, led the team with 43 goals and finished second behind Briere with 84 points.
The Sabres, the only team last year to feature seven players with 60 or more points, don’t have one this year among the league’s top 50 scorers.
“It’s different this year,” Jochen Hecht said. “Last year, we scored six, seven, eight goals a game sometimes. This year, three are hard to come by. I think that’s the disappointing part of it. Guys are squeezing the sticks harder than they usually do.”
Coach Lindy Ruff remains upbeat, confident the Sabres are starting to play better, even though they don’t have the wins to show for it.
Ruff noted how Buffalo rallied from third-period deficits in the past two games to force overtime. That includes scoring twice in the third period against Ottawa on Thursday.
“I believe in the group we have here. I think this group is good enough to win on a nightly basis,” Ruff said. “We’ve had highs and we’ve had lows, and we haven’t been able to hit a happy medium. But I think the one thing is, nobody has quit and nobody has failed to show up when we’ve needed them most.”