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Sabres' high hopes are but a faint glimmer now

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen Buffalo Sabres Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen - The Canadian Press

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — A week ago, after the Sabres dropped consecutive 3-1 losses coming out of their bye week break, defenceman Rasmus Dahlin refused to consider his team’s season-long inconsistencies by insisting Buffalo still had time to climb into the playoff picture.

“In my head, I can’t be thinking like you guys,” Dahlin said, referring to reporters, while noting there were still 31 games left in the season. “We can’t look at the big picture. I know the outside world is doing it. But in here, if we start doing that, it’s no good.”

A week later, the playoff picture appears even gloomier after the Sabres (24-27-4) split their past four games following a 4-3 loss to Anaheim on Monday. In dropping 12 points out of contention, Buffalo is all but mathematically out of the race and more likely destined to extend its NHL-record playoff drought to a 13th season.

Only a faint glimmer remains of the high aspirations the Sabres had in September when general manager Kevyn Adams declared his team’s playoff window as being open.

The young, resurgent team that mounted a late-season playoff push only to fall two points short last April has instead muddled through a season in which Buffalo has won consecutive games just four times, and has yet to win three in a row.

The maddening run of inconsistency is evident from game to game. Last week, Buffalo followed a 7-0 shutout win over Los Angeles with a 4-0 loss to Florida. In December, the Sabres were blown out 9-4 by Columbus, and two nights later celebrated a 9-3 win over Toronto.

Buffalo particularly struggles at home, in going 12-16-1 overall, and 1-5 in its past six. Slow starts are an issue, with the Sabres holding a lead after one period just 11 times, tied for the second-fewest in the NHL.

Injuries have played a factor, but can’t be entirely blamed on a team whose players acknowledge at times they lack identity and are struggling playing under the weight of higher expectations.

“We were able to play more free and loose,” forward Dylan Cozens said of last season. “Now we come into this season with only one expectation that is the playoffs. And when we’re not meeting that expectation — which we’re not — obviously the mood does change a bit and we start getting more frustrated.”

Cozens memorably javelined the shaft of his broken stick down the Sabres' tunnel after one recent frustrating shift. On Monday, Dahlin whirled his stick high into the air after teammate Casey Mittelstadt was penalized for tripping with 1:38 remaining, negating Buffalo’s chance to enjoy a 6-on-5 advantage to push for a tying goal.

And yet, blame can also be directed at management for failing to provide help by perhaps overvaluing its roster. Adams has essentially stood pat this season in making just one trade in acquiring fourth-line forward Eric Robinson from Columbus for a conditional seventh-round pick.

While he added two defencemen in free agency last summer, Adams failed to provide offensive help, especially when knowing promising rookie forward Jack Quinn would miss the first few months of the season after rupturing an Achilles tendon in June.

The Sabres also misjudged their goaltending situation in rushing rookie Devon Levi into a starting role before finally demoting him to the minors after going 9-7-2 with a .891 save percentage.

Adams dismissed the doubters to start the season in backing Levi by saying: “We would not have put him in a situation we didn’t think he could handle and learn and grow from.”

The focus of attention is also on coach Don Granato and whether his ability to develop youngsters has plateaued in his third full season.

A year ago, both Granato and Adams made the case for how Sabres players would benefit from having the experience of being in the thick of a playoff race. On Monday, Granato acknowledged his players still have more to learn.

“This entire season is new territory for lots of guys with different expectations and different pressures and dealing with not being tight,” Granato said, before noting signs of growth, with the Sabres playing better defensively and getting better goaltending with the team finally settling on Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen as its starter in late December.

What’s not improved is Buffalo’s win total a year after the Sabres' 42 victories were their most since last making the playoffs in 2010-11.

“We can state the obvious. It’s all about winning at the end of the day,” Granato said. “It’s all going to come back at some point, and the foundation is going to be stronger.”

The only question is when, with Granato saying this is part of a lengthier process.

And yet, there have been hints of a seeming disconnect between Granato and his team, as happened last week when the coach insisted his players’ confidence was at its highest of the season. The Sabres then proceeded to lose 3-1 to St. Louis after which Jeff Skinner acknowledged confidence was an issue.

“Sooner or later, we’ll get out of it and have more confidence, and the guys will feel good about themselves and things will start to click,” Skinner said. “It’s just a matter of right now trying to find that, and get out of it quick.”