With the Toronto Maple Leafs going south in a hurry via a 2-12-2 stretch in their last 16 games and Montreal buried at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, Buffalo is the only team left in the Northeast Division battling for the eighth playoff spot.
Four teams from the Southeast are battling for the division crown--Florida, Washington, Winnipeg and Tampa Bay--with the second place team presently holding down the eighth and final playoff spot.
One week ago today, the Sabres were four points out of the final spot behind Winnipeg, and trailing Washington and Tampa Bay as well. Today they remain four points out of the eighth spot behind Washington tied with Winnipeg.
Which isn't all that bad considering they went 2-2-0 this past week and considering they lost in regulation to Winnipeg to start the week.
The game in Winnipeg vs. the Jets--a 3-1 loss--was the last of a four game western road trip that saw the team go 3-1-0, an impressive record considering the fact that they played four games in six nights.
A condensed schedule continued as the Sabres came back to the F'n Center for a game against Carolina before heading to Boston the next night. It ended two days later with a trip to Ottawa.
After the Winnipeg loss, the team gutted out an OT win vs. Carolina then showed signs of fatigue in Boston as the Bruins scored three unanswered goals. Jhonas Enroth was in net for that game--his first appearance since Feb. 16--and he played very well, but remained without a win since November.
Hindsight may prove that the Boston game was pretty much conceded in order to give Ryan Miller a rest.
Miller has been on fire lately going 7-1-1 with a 1.74 gaa and a stellar .947 save percentage in his last nine games.
The team needed him to be stellar considering the fact that they scored three goals twice and were held to one goal four times (a 1-2-1 record) during that stretch.
Regardless of who the Sabres are chasing for eighth spot, and it has the potential to change almost nightly, they need to get two points nearly every night. Saturday's shootout win at Ottawa was exactly that.
The Sabres never lead in that game while overcoming one-goal deficits three times on their way to a 4-3 SO win. It was one of their best games of the season as they faced 6'7" Sens goalie Ben Bishop.
In a David vs. Goliath scenario the two smallest Sabres players contributed mightily to the Sabres victory. 5'5" Nathan Gerbe used his scoring touch to beat Bishop far side with a shot that hugged the ice. That tied the score at one.
5'9" Tyler Ennis, who was moved back to center, took a diving lunge at a rebound to chop one past Bishop to tie the score at two. Then in the shootout, he deked "Goliath" for the game-winner.
The team still faces a very steep climb with 13 games to go. Once again, it's not so much how many points back of eighth they are, but who they need to jump over to get there. And what makes the task more daunting is the tiebreaker. The Sabres have significantly less regulation/overtime wins (25) than the teams their battling with (Florida and Winnipeg are the closest with 28.)
This week we'll focus upon the Sabres vs. the Southeast (minus Carolina.) With Ottawa nine points ahead of Buffalo and in control of the 7th-seed, right now all that's left is who takes the Southeast Division and who will get the eighth and final playoff spot.
A look at the standings:
- 3rd, Eastern Conference, Florida--77 pts.
- 8th, Washington--76
- 9th, Winnipeg--72
- 10th, Buffalo--72
- 11th, Tampa Bay--69
- Florida--vs. Toronto, vs. Boston, vs. Buffalo
- Washington--@ NY Islanders, @ Winnipeg, @ Chicago
- Winnipeg--vs. Dallas, vs. Washington, vs. Carolina
- Buffalo--vs. Montreal, vs. Colorado, @ Florida
- Tampa Bay--vs. Boston, vs. Toronto, vs. St. Louis
Some quick notes:
- The Sabres could make league history by becoming the first team ever to be at the bottom of the conference in February and make the playoffs in April. Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News also notes that there has been only one team to be 10 points out of a playoff spot in February that made the top-eight--the 1994 NY Islanders. He also noted that they were swept by the NY Rangers that year and were outscored 22-3.
- Winnipeg is a Jekyll and Hyde team when it comes to home and road games. They're 21-10-4 at home and 11-19-4 on the road. It doesn't help the Sabres that all three games for the Jets this week are at home.
- The Florida Panthers are filled with veterans with cup rings and plenty of playoff experience. As of the past six weeks they've been able to beat the teams they should beat, with mixed results vs. playoff calibre teams. Toronto's an important game for them even though they're 3-0 vs. the Leafs this season. They have Boston after that and the Sabres on Saturday night.
- Washington seems to be getting stronger and is making a big push. They're 6-3-1 in their last 10 games and head to the Island on a three-game winning streak. The Islander game is the first of five games on the road where their road record is an unspectacular 12-18-3 though.
The Sabres head into tonight's game vs. Montreal missing their second-leading goal scorer, Thomas Vanek and energy forward Matt Ellis, both felled by injuries the last two games. They also may be without the services of defenseman Andrej Sekera who has missed the last three games due to "flu-like" symptoms. Sekera was replaced by former Vancouver Canuck, and trade-deadline "throw-in," Alexander Sulzer who's acquitted himself very well. In the four games since the trade he's a plus-3 and in the last two games he's logged over 20 minutes.
In the battle for the Southeast Division crown and eighth place in the Eastern Conference, it's wide open right now and the most important thing for the Sabres is to get two points by any means necessary.
The goals should be 94 points which equates to going 11-3-0; 10-1-2; or 9-0-4.
Finally, Marcus Foligno scored his first-ever NHL goal vs. Ottawa on Saturday night, a game-tying tally late in the 3rd period. It was a pure hustle/muscle play that ended up ricocheting off of Sabres nemesis Daniel Alfredsson and into the net.
It's also cool collection of little events surrounding the goal--from Foligno out-muscling aged veteran Sergei Gonchar and making him look like a cardboard cut-out, to the nifty way Foligno pulled the puck between the legs of Gonchar, to the perfect deflection over the shoulder of Ben "Goliath" Bishop, to Drew Stafford inadvertently whacking Bishop in the mask as he tried to smack the puck in.