Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff says his team will have to be one of the best in the Eastern Conference if it hopes to make the playoffs, but the Sabres are already starting the second half of their season short-handed.
With Tim Connolly and Maxim Afinogenov still nursing injuries, Buffalo will try to continue its recent domination of the Tampa Bay Lightning when the teams meet at the St. Pete Times Forum on Tuesday.
The Sabres (21-21-6) won the Presidents’ Trophy last season with a league-best 53-22-7 record, but are already just one loss shy of matching their total from 2006-07. They went 2-7-5 in their last 14 games before the All-Star break and are tied with Toronto for the second-worst record in the East, three points ahead of Tampa Bay (20-25-5).
“There’s no getting around it. We’ve put ourselves in a tough spot,” Ruff said. “We’re going to have to be probably one of the top three teams in the East now.”
The Sabres will have to start their stretch run without Connolly, who has missed six games and remains out indefinitely after tests revealed he has a bone spur in his hip - an injury which was originally diagnosed as a strain. The center has five goals and 24 assists - third-most on the team - in 34 games this season.
Afinogenov, who’s missed 10 games with a slight groin tear, has begun skating on his own and could be back by the end of this week, Ruff said. Afinogenov had a career-best 23 goals last season, but has just seven goals and 11 assists in 38 games in 2007-08.
The Sabres did enter the break on a high note, winning 2-1 at Dallas on Thursday in the third game of a seven-game road trip. Derek Roy scored twice and has five goals and two assists in his last four games.
“It’s getting close to the time where you’ve got to shut up and do it,” goalie Ryan Miller said. “Now we find ourselves looking at the teams in playoff positions, and we have to show some maturity and do something about it. I think we’ll be fine.”
If recent history is any indication, the Sabres have a good shot at their first back-to-back wins since capping a six game winning streak with a 6-5 shootout victory at Philadelphia on Dec. 22. Buffalo has won five straight at Tampa Bay since a 3-1 loss there on March 18, 2004, and eight of nine against the Lightning overall.
The Lightning lost 8-4 to conference-leading Ottawa on Thursday, ending a three-game losing streak. Defenseman Dan Boyle scored his first two goals of the season in his return to the lineup after missing 36 games due to left wrist surgery.
“The wrist held up, and that’s probably the only positive thing that came out of it,” Boyle said. “It’s been a frustrating year for me. A lot of stuff happened. There’s going to be some pain and some weakness along the way, but nothing that’s going to bother me down the road.”
John Tortorella coached his 507th game, breaking a tie with Herb Brooks for most games coached by an American-born NHL coach.