Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
The Buffalo Sabres have been on quite a roller coaster as of late. Whether it’s the stretch where they got points in 15 of 19 games to climb back into the Eastern Conference playoff hunt, or their three game home losing streak that came to an end yesterday against Atlanta, the team has been teasing fans with their hot and cold play. When you factor in the sale of the team to billionaire Terry Pegula, things get even more crazy.
This team’s ascent back to relevance started way back in December, when they were sitting at 14-18-4 after two embarrassing losses to the Panthers and the wretched (at that point) Flames. That finished off a stretch where they had lost five of seven games, and hopes were quickly dimming in the city. At that point, some players on the team started to step up in a big way.
Ryan Miller got things started by going on a nice little run as of late. There have been a couple of bumps in the road, such as his seven goals against in only 26 shots against the Islanders, but for the most part, he has been turning in some great performances. His 38 save effort against the Bruins on January 20th was a gritty display of his hockey prowess, and even yesterday’s game against Atlanta showed his true colors. He stopped 40 of the 41 shots that he faced, and he helped the team gut out a win against another squad that is trying to claw their way into the playoff picture.
Another player who is coming on for Buffalo is Tyler Myers. The young defenseman has looked shaky at times during his sophomore campaign, but his offensive skills are starting to come back to him, with four goals and eight assists since the calendar turned to 2011. He is doing that while playing over 20 minutes a game and exhibiting some very responsible defense, and that is a big need for a team that has been allowing a lot of shots on goal this season.
Drew Stafford has also been lighting the world on fire offensively lately. He is on a three game point-less streak right now, but before that he was absolutely white hot, scoring nine goals in seven games and really taking the offensive load upon his shoulders for this team. He may not be the biggest offensive catalyst on this squad, but along with guys like Thomas Vanek and Tyler Ennis, he could potentially be a cog in a group that can give Ryan Miller some very solid support, and that could be huge for this team’s playoff hopes.
Even with all of these players producing, the biggest factor in whether the Sabres will make the playoffs is going to be their upcoming schedule. They are currently on pace for 86 points, which would put them one point behind the Carolina Hurricanes, the projected eighth seeded team. The good thing for Buffalo is that they have three meetings remaining with the Canes, and while two of those are at RBC Center, the fact that they have so many chances to go head-to-head with the team they are chasing is definitely going to be a potential benefit for them.
They also have one game left against the Thrashers, who are projected to finish 10th, and they also have two dates left with the Rangers, who are on pace for a seventh place finish. These games against the teams around them are (obviously) a good bellwether to determine this squad’s playoff viability.
Outside of these big games against the teams that they are chasing and being chased by, this team has a road trip coming up that is going to fit the bill of “make or break”. Beginning on March 1st, the Sabres will hit the road and visit the Rangers, Hurricanes, Flyers, Wild, Penguins, and Bruins. All six of these teams are currently in the playoffs in their respective conferences, and within that stretch is a particularly tough back-to-back that is going to test this team’s determination. On a Saturday the Sabres play an afternoon matinee against the Flyers, and then on Sunday, they have to travel all the way to Minnesota to play the Wild at Xcel Energy Center, which happens to be one of the more difficult places to play in the league.
So, as a Sabres fan, should you believe in “Millercles” (stick tap to Greg Wyshynski for coining that term) that your team will make the playoffs, even with this tough stretch of games coming up? Logic would dictate that they probably will have a tough time making it in, but being only a point out, there’s no way that you can count this team out. Even with their recent slip-up, the fact is that this team is starting to gel together, and with a new owner potentially breathing some new life into the franchise, it isn’t much of an “out on the limb” prediction to say that this Sabres team will make the playoffs.
Obviously the next two weeks are going to be critical, and if they can make it through this seven game trip with at least seven of the 14 points (especially the two against the Hurricanes), then they would have to be considered the favorites to grab that last spot.