Monday, March 26, 2012

If the playoffs started today...

the Buffalo Sabres would still be on the outside looking in. But, they're as close as they can get being tied with Washington in points having played the same number of games.

There are two weeks left in the regular season, six games left to play with one huge game tomorrow as the Sabres meet the Capitals in Washington.

Last Monday Buffalo was tied with Winnipeg two points behind Washington for eighth place in the Eastern Conference and opportunity was knocking. The Sabres did all they could, with a some help along the way, and have their destiny in their own hands. Win out (obviously no easy task) and they're in.

The Caps face a somewhat daunting task as they left Chicago on a two game losing streak with two games still remaining on their four-game road trip. Both Detroit and Philadelphia represented tough games as the Wings were the best home team in the league and the Flyers were boasting one of the hottest goaltenders in the league in Ilya Bryzgalov.

They downed an injured Detroit club rather easily then snared a point from Philly taking that one to the shootout. Opportunity was right there for Washington as the prepared to take on a road-challenged Winnipeg team. The Capitals promptly blew a three goal lead and lost in overtime to the Jets.

After dropping a tired Minnesota team, Washington still did well grabbing six out of a possible eight points.

For their part, Winnipeg saw their playoff hopes dim as they dropped two of three last week snaring two out of a possible six points, but they did Buffalo a big favor by allowing Washington only one point in their match up. The Jets can help the Sabres out again tonight as they face the stumbling Ottawa Senators at home.

Ottawa had looked like a solid #7 seed in the East going into last week, but dropped two of three games and now are only two points ahead of Washington and Buffalo. A quick note, they should thank Pittsburgh for the two points. The Penguins were the hottest team in the league having not lost in regulation in 12 games. Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma started rookie goalie Brad Thiessen, he of the 2.68 gaa and a .897 sv%. Thiessen promptly gave up eight goals in an 8-4 loss for the Pens.

As for the Sabres? Eight points on the table, eight points in their pocket.

Wins at Tampa Bay and versus Montreal set the team up for a big match up in versus the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

The Sabres would not be denied pasting the Rangers in a 4-1 victory.

Minnesota was next up the following night and after a slow start Buffalo came back with two unanswered goals and a last second empty-netter by Cody Hodgson to with their second to last set of back-to-backs 3-1.

Goalie Ryan Miller has been sick in goal as of late going 3-0-0, including his career best sixth shutout of the season, with a 0.67 gaa and .977 sv% to finish off the week. He has not lost in regulation since March 5 when the team was finishing a five-game western road-trip in Winnipeg.

Since the all-star break, Miller is 16-3-5 with a 1.90 gaa and a .938 sv%. That stretch coincides with a defense corps that became healthy once again. And it should be noted that Miller may have finally gotten healthy again himself. He got his bell rung by Boston's Milan Lucic on November 12, and though cleared to play less than a month later, it would seem as if 2 1/2 months was a more realistic time-frame to fully recover.

In addition to the stellar play of Miller, along with the contributions of the defense, the offense has been heating up as well thanks in large part to the play of one of the hottest lines in the league--Tyler Ennis centering rookie Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford.

That line has been smoking hot.

Ennis has been a revelation at center. In his last 10 games he has 5g, 7a and is a plus-7. Stafford has gotten his game going with 4g, 8a and is a plus-9. Those two have really helped Foligno get his career off to a rollicking start. Since he came up eight games ago he has 6g, 4a and is a plus-8.

That line has been held off the scoresheet once in the last eight games, the 3-0 shutout win vs. Montreal.

Contributions on offense have come from a number of players at different times during the last 10 games.

But last week we saw the Ennis line smoke Tampa Bay to kick off the week. They were held scoreless two nights later when the team returned home to face Montreal. But Miller shut out the Habs and Cody Hodgson scored his first goal as a Sabre and added another. Hodgson had final hit the scoresheet for the first time in 10 games with the club by registering two assists the game before.

In New York, call-up Travis Turnbull notched his first NHL goal--the sixth Sabre to do that this season--to get the team going while Ennis and Stafford put on a clinic to put the Rangers away.

Finally, after falling behind 1-0 in the first period vs. Minnesota, Thomas Vanek contributed a big goal for the team to tie it up--his first goal in seven games and only his sixth this calendar year. Vanek, it seems, is playing injured again, but that tally was a biggie. Stafford and Ennis combined for the go ahead goal while Hodgson added a rare Sabres empty-netter with less than a second to go in the game.

Also of note is the fact that defenseman Tyler Myers sat out for games two and three of his three game suspension to start out the week. "Big Tex" is back in the lineup and the defense seems to be whole. They limited the Rangers and the Wild to one goal each when he came back.

The Sabres are really clicking right now, and it seems as if they have the confidence now to beat anyone. And they'll need it.

Not only do they have a huge game at Washington this week, but they also play their nemesis--the Pittsburgh Penguins--three days later.

Once again, two points by any means necessary.

They are at 84 points with six games left in the regular season. If 94 points is the target number, they'll need to post a record of either 5-1-0 or 4-0-2 to get there.

Here's a look at the standings as of today starting with 7th place Ottawa:
  • Ottawa--86 points
  • Washington--84
  • Buffalo--84
  • Winnipeg--78 (one game in hand on all three teams above)
Last week it looked as if Ottawa would be out of reach for the Sabres, but dropping two of three last week pulled them back into the mix.

Tonight they travel to Winnipeg where the Jets have been one of the best teams in the league at home. It's the first of three road games for the Senators this week.

A look at the upcoming schedules:
  • Ottawa--@Winnipeg, @Philadelphia, @NY Islanders
  • Washington--vs. Buffalo, @Boston, vs. Montreal
  • Buffalo--@Washington, vs. Pittsburgh, @Toronto
  • Winnipeg--vs. Ottawa, vs. NY Rangers, @Carolina, @Tampa Bay
Yes, every game is still huge as the Sabres try to become the first team in history to be at least 10 points out in February to make the playoffs.

And it all begins tonight with a little help from a team that's chasing them--the Winnipeg Jets.

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