The Canes seemingly were prepared for a strong push after the Olympic break.
They had good practices. They were healthy. They had a team bonding event at Fort Bragg. They were ready for a five-game road trip after the break, confident they could win some games and pick up some points.
Then came Buffalo.
The first game of the Canes' trip ended dismally, with the Sabres winning 3-2. It ended with Canes defenseman Justin Faulk inadvertently knocking the puck in the Canes' net for the deciding goal in the final minute of regulation.
Talk about a downer, with a lasting effect. The Canes lost the next three games before finally getting a 3-2 win at San Jose to end the trip. But the damage had been done.
On Thursday, the two teams go at it again. Ryan Miller won't be in net again for the Sabres, having been dealt to the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 28. Cam Ward is expected to be the Canes' starting goalie again.
"They'll play hard," Canes coach Kirk Muller said of the Sabres. "We had a good game there with the wrong results but we need to be focused and ready to go."
Muller said he liked the Canes' "compete level" Tuesday against the New York Rangers. The Canes generally outworked the Rangers in a 3-1 win with Ward in net.
"We protected the puck, we were on pucks, got pucks to the net," Muller said.
The Canes (28-28-9) are eight points behind third-place Columbus in the Metropolitan Division and eight points back of Philadelphia in the fight for a wild-card playoff spot. Their point-a-game pace won't get them to the playoffs, so they need to string together a number of wins.
Can the Canes get on a late run?
"We definitely can," center Jordan Staal said. "The opportunity is there. I thought we were working hard in previous games and not getting the results. We had a fullgame effort (against the Rangers) and feel comfortable with our game."
The Canes did not have a morning skate Thursday. Goaltenders Anton Khudobin and Justin Peters and a few skaters did take the ice.
The Canes' lines aren't expected to change from the Rangers game. Eric Staal should center Jeff Skinner and Elias Lindholm, Jordan Staal will be at center with Jiri Tlusty and Alex Semin, Riley Nash will center Nathan Gerbe and Pat Dwyer and Andrei Loktionov will center Drayson Bowman and Manny Malhotra.
Justin Faulk, out the past four games with an upper body injury, was at practice Wednesday, skated Thursday and could play.