When the Buffalo Sabres filed into the dressing room after a close 4-3 loss to the Florida Panthers on Dec. 23 they were annoyed at the result and their inability to shake out of an early season funk. The news that Derek Roy had a suffered a serious left leg injury early in that game only heightened their frustration.
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff and his players found out a couple days later that Roy, who was cleanly hammered into the sideboards 6 ½ minutes into that game by Panthers defenceman Dmitry Kulikov, would need surgery to repair a torn left quadriceps tendon.
They could have folded up right there. Roy was Buffalo's best offensive player with a point a game start. The Sabres were 14-18-4 at the time the news was delivered that Roy was gone for the season. They were 12th in the East, 10 points out of the eighth and final playoff spot.
"With losing Derek it was frustrating," Stafford added. "But at the same time it gave others an opportunity to do more in an offensive role and maybe get a little more responsibility out there. It was a matter for some of us to take advantage of that opportunity. We've had guys who have been able to step up and put up numbers in Derek's absence. At the same time we've been able to improve our overall team play.
"I don't think you can pinpoint one thing that turned it around. It was a collective effort from everyone. We didn't want to throw it away after the poor start we had. Now looking back, none of that matters because we're in a playoff spot and we control our own destiny."
The Sabres have gone 24-10-5 to move into eighth with seven games remaining, including another couple of key games against the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively. How did Ruff direct the turnaround?
Well, there was no clairvoyant moment. In sport, you have seen this story before. A top player goes down and the rest of the team rallies together to prevail. But even if Roy was still scoring goals and setting up his teammates, you get the feeling the Sabres would have turned around their season anyway. For example, injuries to key players early factored into the slow start as did other developments. Here is a sampling on what transpired:
"We wanted the D to be a lot more active," Stafford said. "It's huge when you get secondary scoring from your third and fourth line, but when you get defencemen scoring goals and putting up points the way we have had that improves your chances to win."
Another couple of factors was the inclusion of Brad Boyes at the trade deadline and new owner Terry Pegula providing immediate enthusiasm and optimism.
As a result, Buffalo could be heading to a second consecutive playoff berth despite their challenges this season.
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