You know a hockey team's season has gone awry when dead-center average is considered a step forward.
But indeed it is a big step for the Buffalo Sabres, who have a chance to finish above .500 for December and win more games this month than in the previous two combined.
The Sabres are 4-4-2 this month, with games remaining Sunday against Washington and Tuesday at Winnipeg. They've scored 20 goals in that span, setting a two-goal-per-game pace that isn't exactly outstanding but does eclipse their 1.7-goals-per-game average for the season as a whole.
Most importantly, though, they've rarely been truly outclassed in any game in December. Only last week's 4-1 loss in Boston really looked like a game in which the Sabres were outgunned. In the other nine, they've showed enough fight and discipline to overcome their lack of talent.
"I thin we all play within the confines of our ability and the confines of our system, which we have to play," said interim coach Ted Nolan, who's been given credit by many players for installing a more rigid game plan on the ice. "If we don't do it, we're going to be in trouble."
To be sure, the season is lost. Buffalo is still 10-24-4 only four games from the year's midway point. They're still five points behind the New York Islanders and Edmonton in the race not to be the worst team in the NHL, and 19 points out of a playoff spot. So playing for the postseason in 2013-14 simply is not happening.
But, during such a season, you need to see progress – particularly from young players – to know you're at least headed in the right direction. In this past month, the Sabres have shown that. Zemgus Girgensons has scored three of his four goals and four of his 10 assists this month. Tyler Ennis – who's still only 24 – has scored half of his eight goals this month. Tyler Myers has a goal and two assists this month and generally hasn't looked lost on the ice – a big upgrade from the last season-plus.
Players seem to be buying into Nolan's structure. But they also are learning how to give a complete every shift of every game.
"We have what we have," Nolan said. "If you try to shorten our bench down to six or seven players, it's going to be a long game. It's going to be a long year … In order for us to have any kind of success, we need everybody."
For the first time all season, everyone is showing up of late. That won't make the season a complete success. But if it keeps up, then it sets up success soon thereafter.
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