The Buffalo Sabres were expected to be among the Stanley Cup contenders after several high-profile offseason moves. Instead, a disappointing December combined with a lengthy injury list has the Sabres in a fight to make the playoffs.
On Nov. 15, the Sabres sat atop the Northeast Division and third in the Eastern Conference with an 11-6-0 record. They had 22 points, one point ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs and just one point behind the Eastern leaders.
A December slide has changed all that.
Entering the NHL’s Christmas break, Buffalo was 3-5-2 for the month, dropping the club to 11th place in the Eastern Conference and fourth in the division. Points-wise, the Sabres (16-15-3) were four back of the eighth and final playoff berth, trailed the Northeast-leading Bruins by 12 and sat just two ahead of the reeling Canadiens.
On top of it all, six players are on injured reserve: forwards Brad Boyes, Nathan Gerbe, Ville Leino, Colin Stuart and Corey Tropp along with defenseman Tyler Myers.
Team-leading goal scorer Thomas Vanek isn’t on IR but didn’t play in the third period against the Leafs on Thursday when a lingering upper-body injury finally caught up to him.
All in all, Buffalo isn’t exactly on par with expectations after signing Leino and blue-liner Christian Ehrhoff as free agents while adding rearguard Robyn Regehr via trade.
Leino’s regular-season numbers last season with the Flyers haven’t ventured north with him. After a 19-goal, 53-point effort in 2010-11, the 28-year-old Finn managed just three goals and 10 points in 29 games before a lower-body injury took him out of action as of Dec. 14.
The Sabres also were hoping for better numbers from goaltender Ryan Miller, especially with a stronger backup in Jhonas Enroth that would ease Miller’s load. But it has been a trying season for the Sabres’ starting netminder. He missed three weeks with a concussion after taking a hit by Boston’s Milan Lucic on Nov. 12 and was pulled twice in Buffalo’s 8-3 pasting at the hands of the Penguins on Dec. 17. The 2010 Vezina Trophy winner and Olympic silver medalist, Miller’s numbers so far — 8-8-2, 3.11 goals-against average, .904 save percentage — don’t match his pedigree.
His and Enroth’s struggles of late prompted criticism from owner Terry Pegula.
"We saw some great goaltending tonight, didn’t we?" he said to reporters outside the team’s dressing room after the Pittsburgh defeat. "If they think they played well, we’ve got more problems."
The Sabres hope they’ve begun to turn the corner with a solid effort in a 3-2 loss to Toronto on Thursday.
"Obviously the couple days’ rest here is going to be nice to spend time with our families and maybe not think about hockey — think about other things," captain Jason Pominville said after that game. "But we wanted to end this on a pretty good note. The effort was there, the results weren’t and if we keep putting efforts on like this and limit those little brain farts a little bit, we’re going to get on a roll here."
They have to hope those words turn into actions. If not, heads could be the only thing rolling.
POULIOT HEATING UP: Much like for the Bruins, the season did not start out well for Benoit Pouliot. He went all of October without a goal and often found himself a healthy scratch. These days, the ex-Canadiens player finds himself on a three-game goal-scoring streak, including a dandy effort in Boston’s rout of the Florida Panthers on Friday. "Everybody that’s had him before thought there was some untapped skill in his game that he could start showing a little more of," Bruins coach Claude Julien told the Boston Globe. "And right now he’s feeling pretty comfortable with this team and he’s showing that."
HAB-NOTS: Shut out by the Jets on Thursday, the Canadiens are struggling for offense, confidence and answers following their fifth straight loss, four of which have come under interim head coach Randy Cunneyworth. Changes and players-only meetings have failed to lead to results. "There’s nothing to be said tonight, the time for talking is far over," defenseman Josh Gorges told reporters on Thursday night. "It’s now a matter of doing something."
SIDELINED SENATOR: Peter Regin is likely feeling like someone put an early lump of coal in his Christmas stocking. The Senators pivot re-aggravated his surgically-repaired left shoulder a third time in nearly three months and is now out indefinitely.
CAN’T HIDE FOR LONG: Plagued by injuries since signing with Toronto two years ago, winger Colby Armstrong tried to keep the latest one, a concussion, a secret from his team. "It took us all by complete shock because we had no idea that he had his bell rung the other night," coach Ron Wilson told reporters on Tuesday. Armstrong, who finally revealed his injury after getting sick doing exercise and practice, is now out "however long he needs to be," Wilson said.