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Resilient Sabres battling for a playoff spot after rocky start to NHL season

The Canadian Press
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Buffalo Sabres center Rob Niedermayer, right, stick handles the puck away from New York Islanders center Frans Nielsen, of Denmark, during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/ Don Heupel) Author: The Hockey News

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Resilient Sabres battling for a playoff spot after rocky start to NHL season

The Canadian Press
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MONTREAL - When Derek Roy was felled by a knee injury on Dec. 23, it looked like the Buffalo Sabres' chances of saving their season were finished.

But that was counting out coach Lindy Ruff's ability to get the best out of whatever players he has available, and that other scorers were ready to step up when their point-per-game scoring leader went down.

"He's a huge part of our offence," forward Drew Stafford said Tuesday of Roy, who will likely be out for the rest of the season. "We just found a way to turn it around and we have a great chance now to make a push to get into the playoffs.

"Not many people were believing in us. They kind of thought the season might be over, but we believed in here. All we're focused on now is, game by game, trying to get points."

In the first 19 games after Roy's injury, the Sabres went 12-5-2 to go from near the bottom of the NHL Eastern Conference pack to within four points of the eighth and final post-season position. For a team that started the campaign in a 3-9-2 funk, it is a remarkable comeback.

"A lot of people might have written us off, but look at where we are now," added Stafford. "None of it matters now because we're right there.

''We have a great chance. We're not worried about what other teams are doing. Carolina and Atlanta are right by us, but we don't want to rely on them winning or losing games. We believe the ball's in our court and we'll focus on playing well and getting points every game."

After Roy's injury, the gifted but streaky Thomas Vanek went on a tear that saw him pile up nine goals and 14 assists in 19 games. Rookie Tyler Ennis had 15 points in the same stretch, and Stafford scored 14 goals, including three of his four hat-tricks this season.

"I'm shooting the puck and it's going in—no other explanation than that," said the 25-year-old who was drafted 13th overall by Buffalo in 2004. "I'm trying to get into good scoring areas, shooting the puck, hanging around the net. They just happen to be going in for me."

Ruff said it is simply that other players have provided what was lost when Roy went down.

"Guys sense that we're missing a real good player, and sometimes there's guys that can go in that spot and pick up the slack," he said. "My goal with Derek was for him to be harder on the puck defensively and at the same time be over a point-a-game player.

"I thought we had him pretty close to where we wanted him."

The backbone of the club remains Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Ryan Miller, although after being rocked in a 7-6 overtime loss to the New York Islanders, his streak of 31 consecutive starts was to end Tuesday night with 22-year-old Jhonas Enroth being called up from AHL Portland to play against the Montreal Canadiens.

The way the season has gone is also reflected in the play of towering second-year defenceman Tyler Myers.

After winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year with 48 points last season, Myers had only four points in the first 15 games but gradually got back on track and has been on a point-per-game pace of late, as well as being a force in the defensive zone.

"More than anything it was me, in my own head," he said of his early season woes. "I won't lie, I was feeling pressure from last year.

"I thought I had to do more than I did. It took me a little time to figure out that less is more. I had a lot of talks with the coaches and they stuck by me the whole way. Now I feel good and I want to keep it going."

It is a lot of responsibility for a 21-year-old taken 12th overall in 2008, but that was an exceptional draft for defencemen. Among those already in the NHL, Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian, Alex Pietrangelo and Luke Schenn were selected ahead of Myers, while Erik Karlsson, Luca Sbisa, Michael Del Zotto and John Carlson came not far behind, not to mention second rounder Travis Hamonic.

Myers said the Sabres tightened their defensive game and both he and the team got better as the season progressed.

"I think it's just buying into our system and playing hard to make it work," he said.

One area the Sabres can improve is their record at home, where they are 27th in the 30-team league at 12-12-2.

"We're in desperation mode now to try to makethe playoffs," said Myers. "We're near the bottom of the playoff race and we have to string some wins together, at home or on the road."

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Resilient Sabres battling for a playoff spot after rocky start to NHL season