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O’Reilly: Sabres adopted mindset of ‘being OK with losing’

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Ryan O'Reilly was unable to hide his dejection as he acknowledged that the Sabres’ latest last-place finish led him to question his love for hockey.

If that wasn’t enough, the high-priced center accused the Sabres of adopting a mindset of “being OK with losing.”

“It’s crept into all of our games. Yeah, it’s disappointing. It’s sad,” O’Reilly said Monday, two days after Buffalo closed one of its worst seasons in franchise history. “I feel throughout the year I’ve lost the love of the game multiple times, and just need to get back to it because it’s eating myself up, and eats the other guys up, too.”

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Losing is all O’Reilly knows in the three seasons since being acquired in a trade with Colorado, after which the Sabres signed him to a seven-year, $52.5 million contract extension.

Rather than being part of a rebuilding plan, which included Buffalo selecting Jack Eichel with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, O’Reilly and company find themselves back at square one. They became the NHL’s first team to finish 31st – following this year’s addition of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights – after back-to-back 30th-place finishes in 2013-14 and 2014-’15.

This year’s collapse is considerably worse given that Buffalo’s trajectory was supposed to be trending upward under the new regime of general manager Jason Botterill and coach Phil Housley. They took over last spring after the Sabres underachieved in finishing 26th under GM Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma

“We have to evaluate everything, coaching staff, the players. What are they willing to change?” Housley said. “There comes a point in your career where you have to realize what’s important. Obviously, winning, what it takes to win, the commitment to win in this league. And that’s what we talk about change.”

Very little went right in a season Buffalo opened 1-5-2 and closed 2-9, extending the franchise’s longest playoff drought to a seventh straight year.

Buffalo matched a franchise low for home wins by going 11-25-5, including a 3-2 overtime loss to the Rangers in the Winter Classic at New York City. The Sabres finished last in the NHL with 199 goals scored, 91 goals at home and in being outscored by 81 goals.

Their best run was a three-game win streak, all on the road, while the Sabres went winless over four or more games seven times, including an 0-5-2 skid from Nov. 10-22.

The reality of how bad the Sabres were, set in at the midpoint of the season for defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.

“It was around Christmas and we were done, and we still had 40 games to play,” Ristolainen said. “Everyone wants to make the playoffs so bad, and we weren’t even close.”

LIKING EICH

Eichel led Buffalo with a career-best 25 goals and 64 points in 67 games, despite missing 15 games with a sprained right ankle. Much more is expected next season when Eichel’s eight-year, $80 million contract kicks in.

“Things will get better and it starts with me,” Eichel said. “Everybody needs to look at themselves and figure out what they’re doing. Obviously, whatever I’ve been doing hasn’t been working. What we’ve been doing as a team hasn’t been working.”

DOWN ON THE FARM

While the Sabres are done, their AHL Rochester Americans affiliate qualified for the playoffs for the first time in four years. The Americans feature several Sabres prospects being counted upon to play in Buffalo full-time next season including forward Alexander Nylander, defenseman Brendan Guhle and goalie Linus Ullmark.

FREE AGENTS

The Sabres have a decision to make in goal with starter Robin Lehner set to become a restricted free agent and backup Chad Johnson eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. The team’s other pending unrestricted free agents include forwards Benoit Pouliot and Jordan Nolan, and defenseman Josh Gorges.

Forward Sam Reinhart, who scored a career-best 25 goals, completed his three-year entry level contract and eligible to be a restricted free agent.

OFF TO THE WORLDS

Rookie first-round draft pick Casey Mittelstadt accepted Hockey USA’s invitation to compete at the world championships in Denmark next month. Mittelstadt signed with Buffalo last month after completing his freshman season at Minnesota. The center won a bronze medal representing the U.S. at the World Junior hockey championships in January.

INJURIES

Lehner visited a specialist Monday to assess a lower body injury that forced him to miss the final five games. D Zach Bogosian expects to be cleared to skate by June after having season-ending hip surgery in January.

More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

PHT Morning Skate: Pierre McGuire feels ‘great’ after undergoing surgery for prostate cancer

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Buffalo Sabres had an emotional practice yesterday, as Evander Kane and Justin Falk got into it.  As if that wasn’t enough, Zach Bogosian also suffered an injury during the session. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk triggered a “fat trick” when he scored a big goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning the other night. The goal allowed ‘Canes fans to take advantage of a bunch of promotional food specials at different local restaurants. (Charlotte Observer)

• Bruins defenseman have done a much better job defending the slot in front of their goaltenders. (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

• William Hill sports book will take a pounding if the Golden Knights make the playoffs (that seems likely). They’d lose $1 million if Vegas takes home the Stanley Cup. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

• NBC Olympics announced unveiled their hockey commentary teams for the upcoming Pyeongchang games. (NBC Sports)

• USA Today recently sat down with Team USA GM Jim Johannson to discuss the potential his team possesses. (USA Today)

• Some people in the hockey world were stunned when they found out Alex Carpenter had been cut from Team USA’s women’s team. She led the U.S. in goals as a 19-year-old at the Sochi Olympics. (Sporting News)

• Former NHLer Richard Park has been serving as an assistant coach for South Korea’s hockey team that will be making their Olympic debut this year. (USA Hockey)

• Next week, Team USA’s women’s team will play exhibition games against the NWHL’s best players. 10 of the league’s best players come from the Metropolitan Riveters, who are undefeated this season. (The Ice Garden)

• Cale Makar just won a gold medal with Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship, but he turned down an invitation to play for his country at the upcoming Winter Olympics. (TSN.ca)

• Here’s a nice love story. A Bruins fan and a Canucks fan got married in a cool hockey-themed wedding. (Daily Hive)

• Nic Riopel, who’s a goaltender in the Lightning organization, helped get Louis Domingue drafted in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The two knew each other because Riopel had been dating Domingue’s sister. (Syracuse.com)

• NBC hockey analyst Pierre McGuire announced that he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. McGuire underwent surgery to remove the tumor already. We want to wish him all the best in his recovery. (USA Today)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

WATCH LIVE: 2018 Winter Classic – Rangers vs. Sabres

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Rangers

Rick Nash/Mika Zibanejad/Mats Zuccarello

Michael Grabner/Kevin Hayes/J.T. Miller

Pavel Buchnevich/David Desharnais/Jimmy Vesey

Paul Carey/Boo Nieves/Vinni Lettieri

Ryan McDonagh/Nick Holden

Brendan Smith/Kevin Shattenkirk

Marc Staal/Brady Skjei

Startling goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

Rangers, Sabres take advantage of Winter Classic distraction

Sabres:

Zemgus Girgensons/Jack Eichel/Sam Reinhart

Evander Kane/Ryan O'Reilly/Kyle Okposo

Benoit Pouliot/Evan Rodrigues/Jason Pominville

Johan Larsson/Jacob Josefson/Jordan Nolan

Marco Scandella/Rasmus Ristolainen

Jake McCabe/Zach Bogosian

Josh Gorges/Nathan Beaulieu

Startling goalie: Robin Lehner

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins blank Buffalo, keep heat on Leafs

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Look, it’s still December, so the Bruins would be getting ahead of themselves if they’re already thinking about playoff seeding.

Let’s look ahead a little bit for them, then: with the way things are looking in the Atlantic Division, it seems like the Tampa Bay Lightning might be untouchable on the top, but then the second seed may very well come down to Boston or their buddies, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

(That’s not to discount everyone else, particularly not their best buddies in the Montreal Canadiens.)

With that in mind, a round of home-ice advantage isn’t an outrageous goal for the Bruins to shoot for. At minimum, they’re putting themselves in a good position to gain a playoff spot without sweating things into the end of the regular season, so nights like these could help.

Also helpful: a backup goalie who’s playing more like a 1A/1B, as Anton Khudobin continued his solid play with a 36-save shutout of the Buffalo Sabres, as the Bruins won 3-0.

That margin of victory was far smaller than the scoreboard would indicate, as Boston tacked on two empty-net goals at the end. Instead, Jake DeBrusk‘s Gatorade-launching, fantastic snipe was the only goal of the game where a netminder was actually in place.

Impressive. Also impressive: the Bruins lately, as they’re 5-1-1 in their last seven games. They’ve also been strong in a broader sense, as they’re now 17-10-5; consider how much dimmer things looked for the B’s on Nov. 15, when they fell to 6-7-4.

Again, the Bruins have a shot at surpassing the Maple Leafs, at least eventually. Here’s where the Atlantic’s second and third seeds stand after each squad won on Tuesday:

Maple Leafs: 21-13-1, 43 points in 35 games

Bruins: 17-10-5, 39 points in 32 games

Yes, Toronto has a four-point lead against Boston, but the Bruins hold three games in hand. As this post notes, the Maple Leafs face a harsh end to December, so it’s possible that the gap could really narrow as 2018 rapidly approaches.

From the Sabres’ perspective, this was a solid all-around effort, as the Bruins rarely got anything easily (aside from a near-own-goal, as Zach Bogosian has to feel pleased to avoid the wrath of Robin Lehner, narrowly). Still, they fell short once again, adding frustration to a consistently frustrating 2017-18 campaign.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Boston Bruins at Buffalo Sabres

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WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Bruins

Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak

Jake DeBruskRyan SpoonerAnders Bjork

Danton HeinenRiley NashDavid Backes

Tim SchallerSean KuralyNoel Acciari

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy

Torey KrugBrandon Carlo

Matt GrzelcykKevan Miller

Starting goalie: Anton Khudobin

BRUINS LOOK TO KEEP ROLLING AGAINST SABRES (Preview)

Sabres

Evander KaneJack EichelJason Pominville

Benoit PouliotRyan O'ReillyKyle Okposo

Zemgus GirgensonsJohan LarssonSam Reinhart

Evan RodriguesJacob JosefsonJordan Nolan

Marco ScandellaRasmus Ristolainen

Nathan BeaulieuZach Bogosian

Jake McCabeVictor Antipin

Starting goalie: Robin Lehner