Slumping Sabres still attempting to get over losing Drury, Briere

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BUFFALO, N.Y. - It's an easy equation when it comes to adding up the reasons behind the once-mighty Buffalo Sabres' suddenly sluggish start.

No Chris Drury plus no Daniel Briere equals less offence and even fewer victories.

Goaltender Ryan Miller will acknowledge the math, but that doesn't help him or the team in the short run, never mind fill the immediate void in leadership and offence left after Buffalo's co-captains went their separate ways in free agency in July.

"Well, they're not here, so I guess somebody's got to figure out a way to instil that attitude," Miller said after practice Tuesday.

The trouble is, Miller added, it took years for Drury and Briere to establish themselves as leaders. And it might take a little while longer for this new young core of players to step into that role.

"We've got guys 23 years old trying to do their job. It's going to come," Miller said. "They just need to find their way and, honestly, quit squeezing the stick."

There's been plenty of squeezing and hand-wringing to go around for a team that has gone from first in victories and points last season, to the bottom of the NHL ledger six weeks into this campaign.

At 6-9-1 and 13 points, the Sabres are tied with Washington and Edmonton for last in the NHL standings, although the Capitals and Oilers have each played one more game.

That's a major plunge for a Sabres team that won its first 10 games last year to match a league record for best start and didn't register its ninth loss until its 41st game.

The Sabres are slumping on offence, having been shut out three times already after not being blanked once last year. And since combining for 18 goals during a three-game win streak, the Sabres have eked out a mere 20 in their past 11.

Even worse, Buffalo can't manage to get a lead.

The Sabres haven't scored the first goal in their past 13 games. And except for two overtime wins in their past seven games, Buffalo hasn't held a lead in regulation since the third period of a 4-2 victory at Florida on Oct. 27.

"We haven't had any bounces," coach Lindy Ruff said. "You can't buy a lot when things are going bad. And it's tough to get things going in the right direction. We're confident we can get it there."

It's not for a lack of trying. The Sabres are 1-4-1 in their past six games despite out-shooting their opponents each time, including a 2-1 loss at Boston last weekend in which Buffalo out-shot the Bruins 46-22.

What the Sabres lack is finish.

"Yeah, I think we're really good at missing right now," forward Thomas Vanek said.

Vanek is struggling in particular. He's managed four goals and 10 points this season, well off the pace he established last year in finishing with a team-best 43 goals and 84 points.

The Sabres expected far more from their young star, especially after they retained him in July by matching the Oilers' US$50-million, seven-year contract offer. One reason Vanek has been far less potent is because it's been easier for opposing teams to contain him now that they don't have to worry about Drury and Briere centring Buffalo's other two lines.

Vanek understands he and the Sabres aren't going to escape questions about Drury and Briere's departures until the team proves it can start winning without them.

"Obviously, two key guys aren't here any more and things aren't going so well right now," Vanek said. "It's easy to point at those two players right there and look at it as an excuse. But we don't look at it as an excuse. ... We feel like we're a very good team."

The Sabres will get a chance to prove that in the next week, when they twice play the Senators: At Ottawa on Thursday followed by a home game Nov. 21.

The Senators, who eliminated Buffalo in the Eastern Conference final last season, lead the league with 14 wins and 28 points.

"We want to beat those guys. They're the best right now and we're right at the bottom," Vanek said. "I think if you want to kick-start your season, that's the way to do it."



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