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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

WATCH LIVE: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres

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PROJECTED LINES

Toronto Maple Leafs

Zach HymanWilliam NylanderConnor Brown

Patrick MarleauNazem KadriMitch Marner

James van RiemsdykTyler BozakLeo Komarov

Matt MartinTomas PlekanecKasperi Kapanen

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey

Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev

Travis DermottConnor Carrick

Starting Goalie: Frederik Andersen

[Maple Leafs – Sabres preview.]

Buffalo Sabres

Zemgus GirgensonsRyan O'ReillySam Reinhart

Scott WilsonJohan LarssonJason Pominville

Jordan NolanJacob JosefsonKyle Okposo

Benoit Pouliot — Kyle Criscuolo — Nicholas Baptiste

Marco ScandellaRasmus Ristolainen

Brendan Guhle — Casey Nelson

Nathan BeaulieuVictor Antipin

Starting Goalie: Chad Johnson

WATCH LIVE: Buffalo Sabres at New York Rangers

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PROJECTED LINES

Buffalo Sabres

Benoit PouliotJack EichelKyle Okposo

Evander KaneRyan O'ReillyJason Pominville

Zemgus GirgensonsEvan RodriguesSam Reinhart

Scott WilsonJohan LarssonJordan Nolan

Marco ScandellaRasmus Ristolainen

Jake McCabeJustin Falk

Josh Gorges — Casey Nelson

Starting goalie: Robin Lehner

[NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Sabres vs. Rangers; Penguins vs. Kings]

New York Rangers

Rick NashMika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich

Mats ZuccarelloJ.T. Miller — Vinni Lettieri

Jimmy VeseyDavid DesharnaisPaul Carey

Michael Grabner — Peter Holland — Jesper Fast

Ryan McDonaghNick Holden

Brady SkjeiKevin Shattenkirk

Brendan SmithSteven Kampfer

Starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

WATCH LIVE: 2018 Winter Classic – Rangers vs. Sabres

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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.

Rangers, Sabres take advantage of Winter Classic distraction

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NEW YORK – Hockey players are creatures of habit. They need to be. When you’re practicing and playing games from mid-September until at least April it’s easy to settle into daily routines as that becomes your normal life.

But certain points of the season can drag and along the journey of an 82-game schedule comes points of boredom. Rink, bus, game, hotel, plane and repeat. Like anything, sometimes a season needs a jolt of electricity to bring some excitement to it.

Enter the Winter Classic.

The Buffalo Sabres and the New York Rangers have known this date was coming since the spring. It’s a nationally televised game on a big stage in New York over New Year’s. The all-access cameras have been following them around for a few weeks now and with the holidays just passing, it’s been a great time to spend with family.

On Sunday, both teams got to skate on the ice at Citi Field — first with their teammates during practice and then for an hour afterward with friends and family.

“We’ve been talking about this for the past few weeks and past few months. Families are in now so it’s almost like a little family trip,” said Sabres forward Jordan Nolan. “We were together [Saturday], we had a team meal. [Sunday night] there’s a team meal and guys are spending New Year’s together, guys are getting the families together. When you do an event like this it definitely brings a team a little bit closer. It’s a little bit special experience for everyone during the season, so it’s definitely needed for an 82-game schedule.”

“It’s a lot different,” added Evander Kane. “You kind of forget about the rest of the year.”

While there’s plenty of potential distractions for both teams leading up to the New Year’s Day game, they’re not all necessarily negative.

“You’re changing the normal routine here. I think as an organization, as coaches, that’s one thing that we try and do in an 82-game schedule at any given point is try to change a little bit, even though players are creatures of habit,” said Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault. “With this [Monday], everybody’s got tons of people that are going to watch, that are going to be here, they’re going to want to be at their best. Both teams are going to work real hard and it’s going to be a fine event.”

Both Rangers and Sabres players said on Sunday that while there’s plenty of fun to be had during an outdoor game experience, game day is a different story. They’ll wake up Monday morning and prepare like normal. All the excitement surrounding such an event goes away and it’s a matter of focusing on the two points at hand — points that mean different things to both teams at this point in the season.

For the Rangers, it’s two points toward clinching another playoff berth. For the Sabres, it’s two points that could get them moving in the right direction — a direction they’re feeling they’ve finally started to move toward.

“We’ve got to try and find positives and we have been playing well of late,” Kane said. “A game like this, a marquis game of the year, it’s something that we’re all looking forward to and now that it’s finally here we want to put ourselves in a position to win this game and get off on the right foot for the new year.”

More 2018 Winter Classic coverage:
Sabres’ Jason Pominville ready for third outdoor game experience
Mike Emrick on calling the first Winter Classic, his favorite outdoor game venues (PHT Q&A)
Sabres hoping to use Winter Classic to jump-start positive second half
Rangers, Sabres prepared for cold, windy Winter Classic conditions
Kevin Shattenkirk looking to be more than ‘work in progress’ with Rangers
Old friends Lehner, Lundqvist ready to face off at Winter Classic

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.