Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller makes a save during the second period of the NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
BUFFALO, N.Y. - In taking responsibility for the Buffalo Sabres' sputtering start, coach Lindy Ruff remains confident the team can dig itself out of an early-season hole.
It begins with him.
"It's on me to clean up this mess," Ruff said Thursday. "And I'm not done trying."
Ruff was both upbeat and defiant in the face of mounting criticism directed toward him, while assessing a team that's lacked identity and consistency in getting off to a 5-8-1 start.
"We'll find it," Ruff said. "It'll come. I'm confident it'll come."
The Sabres returned to practice after getting a day off on Wednesday. It was their first two-day break between games since the first week of the season, and came after the Sabres closed a stretch in which they played 14 games in 24 days.
Buffalo now prepares to open a three-game homestand on Friday, when it hosts Northeast Division-leading Boston (8-1-2).
Very little has gone right for the Sabres, who have lost two straight and are 3-8-1 since opening the season with two wins. They're last in the league in having allowed 48 goals. Their power play has gone 1-for-27 in its past seven games.
And they're getting very little offence from anyone beyond their top line that features winger Thomas Vanek. Despite failing to register a point in his past two games, Vanek still leads the NHL with 23 points and 11 goals.
And Ruff has already done plenty in trying to shake things up with little noticeable effect. He's tried juggling line combinations, held team meetings and benched players—most notably defenceman Tyler Myers, who returned in a 2-0 loss at Ottawa on Tuesday after sitting out the two previous games.
Rather than focus on what's gone wrong, Ruff is emphasizing the positive.
Though unhappy with the lack of discipline the Sabres showed in being penalized eight times against Ottawa, Ruff was pleased how the team didn't give up a power-play goal. Though the Sabres failed to score against the Senators, they still managed a season-best 42 shots.
"We were close," Ruff said. "It's my job not to let the player slip back from the way they played that game."
In a shortened 48-game season, the Sabres are already running out of room for error in their attempt to avoid missing the playoffs for a second straight year and fourth time in six seasons.
"Any time you get off to a slow start is disappointing, even more so in a shortened season," centre and captain Jason Pominville said. "You've got to pay attention to details. And at times, when we do it, we're a really good team. And at times we don't, we're an average team."
The lack of a balanced scoring attack has been the Sabres' most pressing issue for much of the season. The top line of Vanek, Pominville and centre Cody Hodgson has combined to score 22 of Buffalo's 39 goals. Second-line centre Tyler Ennis has five goals, but the rest of the team is struggling.
Drew Stafford is enduring the most notable slump. The three-time 20-goal scorer has just five assists this season, and hasn't scored in 17 games, dating to last season.
Stafford has been so snake bitten that he fanned on a one-time attempt while facing a wide-open side in the loss to Ottawa on Tuesday. Stafford did not make himself available to reporters on Thursday, leaving his teammates and Ruff to answer for him.
"It's tough. You want to see him do well," linemate Marcus Foligno said. "When he gets one, I'm pretty sure there'll be plenty more coming after it. Hopefully, he can crack it tomorrow."
Ruff is remaining patient with Stafford, hoping he will find his groove on his own.
"I'm trying my best to keep Drew in the right place, so he doesn't get too frustrated," Ruff said. "For him, it's just to keep working, to bear down on some of those opportunities."
Ruff is also attempting to lead by example by remaining upbeat.
"The team will feed off my energy," Ruff said. "We talked about getting the team in the right mood today. And that's up to me."