GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Buffalo Sabres' two-game trip through Colorado and Arizona could decide whether they are buyers or sellers at the NHL's March 1 trade deadline. After Saturday's 5-3 loss to the Avalanche, the NHL's worst team, the Sabres are trending in the wrong direction.
Buffalo is the latest team to emerge from its five-day break with a loss, continuing an NHL trend that has seen teams go 6-13-4 in their first game after the break. The Sabres are six points off the Eastern Conference playoff pace, they trail five teams for that spot and they still must play Columbus three times and Pittsburgh twice in their last 20 games. Those teams boast the league's fifth- and third-best records, respectively.
"We only have 21 games left now," coach Dan Bylsma told NHL.com ahead of Sunday's game in Arizona. "We know we have to win 15 of them to get to a mark where we might be in the playoffs."
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Center Jack Eichel missed 21 games to start the season with a high ankle sprain and the Sabres have been trying to make up ground ever since that 7-9-5 start. Since Eichel returned, Buffalo is 19-16-5 and the biggest difference is offense, with Eichel contributing 34 points in 40 games for a team-best 0.85 points per game.
In 18 of Buffalo's first 36 games (not counting shootout goals), they scored one or zero goals. Since the New Year, they have been held to one or fewer goals just three times in 25 games.
Bylsma knows the task at hand is still tall. Buffalo doesn't have any games in hand with the teams it is chasing.
"Any points (for other teams) are bad at this point in time," said Bylsma, whose team is in the midst of three games in four nights. "There were going to be teams that picked up points and that's the case. Now we have an opportunity.
"That's just the challenge for us coming off the break where we have to be on our best."
The Coyotes had been playing well until a disastrous road trip through Chicago and Dallas in which they allowed 11 goals in back-to-back losses. Overall, Arizona is 8-6-1 in its last 15 games, but it has dropped three of its last four.
"Too many turnovers," coach Dave Tippett said. "We just don't execute well enough to give ourselves a chance. That's the frustrating part for me."
Arizona goalie Mike Smith (illness) missed Friday's loss in Dallas but felt well enough on Saturday that the team re-assigned goalie Adin Hill to Tucson of the AHL. Hill had been recalled on an emergency basis on Friday. If Smith can't start, Louis Domingue will play his second straight game with Smith backing up. On the injury front, center Brad Richardson (broken right tibia and fibula) is on injured reserve.
Sabres center Zemgus Girgensons benefitted from the bye week. He probably would have missed a couple more games had the team continued playing last week, but he returned on Saturday from a mysterious injury suffered Feb. 6 at New Jersey that he and the team only identified as a "mid-body" ailment. Right winger Sam Reinhart also returned for the Sabres after missing two games with the flu.
Buffalo center Johan Larsson (wrist) is out for the season. Right winger William Carrier (knee) is day to day. The Sabres recalled right winger Justin Bailey and left winger Evan Rodrigues from Rochester of the AHL on Friday. The Sabres are likely to ride goalie Robin Lehner in back-to-back games this weekend, given their importance and the fact that he is well rested off the bye week.