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Road Kill

So are the Buffalo Sabres trading deadline buyers or sellers as the team heads into February? While the team did not crash and burn on their recent road trip, they didn’t exactly make a bold statement either.

The Sabres are back home now, after a seven-game road trip which had them away from the friendly confines of HSBC Arena for almost three weeks. When the team departed for that journey, on a high no less after a 10-1 throttling of the Atlanta Thrashers, many predicted that this trip would define their chances for making the playoffs this season, and that much would be in focus once the team returned.

“This trip will give us a chance to figure where we’re at and if we have a meaningful chance to remain in the playoff hunt,” said defenseman Nathan Paetsch. “Everyone here is looking forward to the challenge.”

The journey began in Toronto, and after the big game against Atlanta, one would think the Sabres would be chomping at the bit to get at it again. Wrong. The team was listless and had no jump at all, and quickly found themselves in a 3-0 hole before goals by Daniel Paille and Jochen Hecht made things closer. Toronto would seal the win with a late goal.

It would get worse. The Sabres were then off to Phoenix for a MLK Day matinee against the Coyotes, and it was Shane Doan skating through Sabres defenders and Buffalo being outplayed, outshot and outhustled in a painful 6-2 defeat. The loss was the Sabres’ eighth in a row, a franchise record, and now they would have to travel to Dallas, a place where the team had had little success, to face one of the elite teams in the Western Conference.

So who among the faithful actually gave the Sabres any chance to find their footing against the deep and talented Dallas Stars? The karma wasn’t there—their black 1999 Stanley Cup championship banner stared down ominously from the rafters, and the game night crew blared the Prince song “1999” as the Stars did their warmups, a reminder of one of Buffalo’s biggest heartbreaks.

But on this night it would be the Derek Roy show. Roy scored both Buffalo goals in a 2-1 Sabres win, including the game-winner on a dazzling two-on-one break. Ryan Miller was sensational in net, blocking 25 shots. Heading into the All Star break, the team had a much needed boost. “To salvage a couple of points here helps us feel good,” Roy said. “This gives us confidence that we can beat any team in the league. It gives us more confidence in our game.”

One can always count on plenty of Buffalo fans to cheer on the team on its swings through the Sunshine State. Between retirees, ex-pats, snowbirds and vacationers, both the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa and the Bank Atlantic Center in Sunrise became Buffalo South, as thousands of fans turned out to root for the Sabres.

Those fans wouldn’t be disappointed. In Tampa, Jason Pominville had two goals for the Sabres, the team was up 4-0 and cruised on to a 4-2 victory, their ninth victory in the last 10 appearances in that building. Said Coach Lindy Ruff, “You can’t explain why you end up having success against them. We’ve had good success in this building for whatever reason. I like Tampa.”

One night later, forward Thomas Vanek would tally the lone goal in the game in a 1-0 shutout of the Florida Panthers. The goal was a power play tally and snapped a 0-39 power play skid on the road. Ryan Miller got his sixth career shutout, but at the other end, Panthers netminder Thomas Vokoun was equally stellar, turning away 40 Buffalo shots. Just like that, the Sabres were on a three-game wining streak. And climbing in the standings.

The much anticipated rematch with the Atlanta Thrashers was everything it was built up to be. Plenty of hits, dazzling playmaking and end-to-end rushes kept fans in the arena and viewers at home at the edge of their seats. Buffalo took a lead in the third on Dmitri Kalinin’s first goal of the season, but Atlanta would tie it up late on a five-on-three power play, which became a six-on-three once the goalie was pulled. Buffalo’s shootout woes continued, with the Sabres failing to convert on four chances, and the result was another loss and one point in the standings.

If you’re watching the standings, an alarming trend is starting to develop which does not bode well for the Sabres. For much of the season, there was a tightly wound logjam between fourth and 13th place, with teams able to move up or down. But the pack is starting to separate, with Montreal, Pittsburgh and New Jersey fighting for fourth seed, and Buffalo five points out of the final playoff spot.

The good news is plenty of home games in a short span, and an opportunity to pile up points in a hurry. The three-week road trip was make-or-break time; the four-week homestand is the new make-or-break time!