Sabres’ Difficult Path to Playoffs

Math is hard. Winning in the NHL is harder.

The Buffalo Sabres, with 66 points through 61 games, are six points behind the Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins who both have 72 points. They’re seven points behind the Montreal Canadiens and Columbus Blue Jackets. Six points separate them from the last wild card spot.

SportsClubStats has pegged the Sabres’ odds of making the playoffs at only 8.2 percent. They have 21 games remaining–10 games at home in KeyBank Center and 11 on the road. Using history as a guide, they’d likely have to pick up at least 30 points in those games. That’s a run in the neighborhood of 14-5-2 or 15-5-1. No doubt, it’s an extremely tall order. Even for red-hot teams like the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

Buffalo Sabres Sam Reinhart
Buffalo Sabres Sam Reinhart scored a hat trick against the Capitals. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Mathematically, the Sabres need to win at least 71.4 percent of their remaining eligible points. At the most, they can “lose” 11 points. Otherwise they’re headed for an eighth consecutive season watching the playoffs on television.

The remaining games have been broken down into five distinct groups. They are:

  • Games Against Teams they Need to Catch
  • Game Against the Leafs
  • Games Against Teams Behind Them
  • Games Against Teams Fighting for Their Playoff Lives
  • Games Against Teams Above Them

Presented here is a path to get the Sabres into the second wild card spot.

Games Against Teams the Sabres Need to Catch

Games: 5
Must-Have Points: 10

The Sabres will certainly need some help from other clubs. But, first and foremost, they need to take care of their own business and win games against the very teams they’re trying to catch in the standings. There are five such crucial contests and each should be looked at as a must-win game.

They play the Penguins twice (both at home), the Blue Jackets at home, and the Hurricanes and Habs on the road. They need to jump over at least two of these four teams. Anything short of two points, preferably in regulation, will be a fatal blow to their playoff chances.

Games Against the Leafs

Games: 3
Must-Have Points: 4

Three of the Sabres’ remaining 21 games are against their rivals an hour or so north–the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs have 78 points and sit in third place in the Atlantic. They have a 99.7 percent chance of making the playoffs. Moreso, they’ll relish the opportunity to send the Sabres to their demise, giving them another season to make tee times in late April.

Jack Eichel Auston Matthews
The stakes are high when Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews go head to head. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

The Leafs have won the last two meetings and three of the last four games against the Blue and Gold. Of the six available points, the Sabres would likely need to net four of them.

Games Against Teams Behind Them

Games: 7
Must-Have Points: 10

If the Sabres are going to go on a hot streak, they can ill-afford to drop games or points against teams behind them in the standings. The team has seven games against such teams. These include one game each against the Philadelphia Flyers, Edmonton Oilers, New Jersey Devils and two games against both the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings.

These are as close to must-wins as any since the Sabres should beat teams that are not as good as they are.

Games Against Teams Fighting for Their Playoff Lives

Games: 3
Must-Have Points: 3

Desperation will meet desperation in these three games against the teams in the Western Conference who are all fighting for their wild card lives. Games against the Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars will likely be some of the toughest on the schedule.

Judging by history, these games will be tough. The Blackhawks have won 13 of the last 14 against the Sabres. Buffalo-born Patrick Kane routinely has a field day against the franchise he cheered for as a kid.

Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks, NHL, Fantasy Hockey
Patrick Kane has had a field day against the Sabres. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Stars have won seven of the last eight games against the Sabres. But, they just lost deadline pickup Mats Zuccarello for four weeks due to an injury as well as captain Jamie Benn for an unknown amount of time. Meanwhile, the Sabres and Avs have split their last six games against one another. Therefore, they need to squeak out three points from these games.

Games Against Teams Above Them

Games: 3
Must-Have Points: 4

The Sabres have three games against teams that are playoff locks: the St. Louis Blues, New York Islanders and Nashville Predators. These teams aren’t about to lay off the gas pedal when approaching the playoffs. They’re more apt to kick into playoff hockey mode and enter the playoffs on a roll. They’ll show no mercy on the Sabres.

That said, the Sabres just took three out of four points against the defending Stanley Cup Champions and the runaway Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning.

“We’re the only ones that are going to get out of this,” said defenseman Jake McCabe prior to the tilt with the Lightning. “We just got to come to work against Tampa–one of the best teams in the league…it could be something that jump starts us here at the end of the year.”

The Sabres often play their best games and ‘play up’ to their opponents. “We had two good performances so we have something to be happy about,” said Sabres captain Jack Eichel. “We just have to build off of it.”

The Blues have owned the Sabres, winning 12 of the 13 last games against them. The Sabres have won two of their last three meetings with the Isles, while the Sabres and Preds have split their last six contests.

There’s a possibility these opponents choose to rest some of their star players, giving them a game or two to heal. Unless they’re jockeying for a first-round opponent, they have the luxury of dropping a game here and there.

For Sabres, There’s A Chance

In recent weeks, the Sabres players have been called soft by their coach. They’ve been called “toast” by local media. They’ve shot themselves in the foot by dropping recent games to the Devils, New York Rangers and Florida Panthers–all teams behind them in the standings. That’s history. It cannot be undone.

Right now, they have a stretch of five games in eight days. They play the Maple Leafs twice, the Pens, Philly and the Oilers. They need to pick up a bare minimum of seven points, more likely eight or nine. Otherwise, no matter what follows, it will be too little and too late.

Related: Sabres Need More Than a Fired up Bogosian

After dropping a game to the Panthers last week, McCabe was asked if the Sabres are completely out of the playoff race. “We’ve won ten in a row before, why not again? We believe that in here [the locker room]. Outside sources, we don’t really give a [bleep] what you guys say” he answered defiantly. “We have a strong group in here and we’re going to keep building to get out of this rut.”

Adding Brandon Montour in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks late Sunday makes the Sabres a better team right away. As Sabres general manager Jason Botterill said in a statement released by the team, “Brandon is a young, offensive-minded defenseman who can play the uptempo style we are looking to play. He’s a right-shot defenseman that brings additional playoff experience to our club.”

As Jim Carrey, a hopeless optimist, pointed out in the movie Dumb and Dumber, there’s still a chance for his dream to come true and become a couple with Mary Swanson. While the Sabres’ ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup, they need to get into the playoffs first. Unlike the movie, their chances aren’t one in a million. Right now, they’re a lot better–more like eight in a hundred. Yeaaaaaah!