The Buffalo Sabres have underperformed through the halfway mark of the season with the expectations that were set back in the summer. The club was expected to compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and even potentially sneak into the tournament for the first time since 2011.
The long list of excuses for the poor first half include injuries, bad defensive play and coaching strategies, to name a few. One of the primary reasons for where the Sabres find themselves in the standings is an issue that is not discussed as much as it should be. Missed opportunities and in-conference record have sunk the Sabres in the standings and have made it impossible to dig out of the hole they’ve put themselves in.
When you break down the wins and losses for the Sabres, one thing jumps off the page at you. That’s their split in victories and defeats against both conferences. We’ll start with the good: against the Western Conference, they’re 8-3-2. Having a .615 winning percentage against the West is pretty impressive and usually helps boost a team’s point total with that type of winning against the opposing conference. The Sabres have wins against the Edmonton Oilers (two wins), Minnesota Wild, Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings. All of these teams currently hold a playoff position in the Western Conference entering play on Wednesday.
Unfortunately, the Sabres play in the Eastern Conference or this may be a vastly different conversation. So, now, the not so good news.
Against the East, they hold a record of 9-15-7 or a .290 winning percentage against their own conference. The in-conference struggle for the Sabres is real. They’ve only won five games against these opponents in 17 opportunities since the beginning of December. If you include the three loser points they picked up, the club has only managed to pull in 13 of a possible 34 points against the East since the beginning of December. That’s only 38 percent of the points available and overall on the entire season, they’ve only picked up 40 percent of the points available (25 of a possible 62). The Sabres have allowed teams they’re chasing to gain 37 total points at their expense.
The wild-card race is nearly out of reach for the Sabres as they sit seven points back of the Ottawa Senators, who hold the final spot entering play on Wednesday night. With how strong the Metropolitan Division is this season, it would be surprising to not see both of those wild-card positions go to teams from that division.
This makes the most direct path to the playoffs for the Sabres to be through the weak Atlantic Division. However, you’ll find a similar story here in regards to the record against these divisional opponents. They’re 4-9-3 against teams within the division, which equates to a .250 winning percentage. They’ve already been swept in the season series by the Boston Bruins and are winless against the Tampa Bay Lightning, as well the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Sabres have battled through the tough stretches against their division and conference opponents, thankfully to their out-of-conference record to have opportunities to pass the teams ahead of them. Sadly, they’ve let nearly every opportunity slip through their grasp.
At the end of December, they had a home-and-home series with the Bruins. If the Sabres won both or took three out of four points, they would have moved within two points of them with a sweep or five points with a three out of four. Instead, after dropping the two games by a combined score of 7-3, the Sabres found themselves 10 back of the Bruins to end 2016.
Just a week ago, the Sabres battled back again with a good start to 2017. They had a back-to-back on the road against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes — an opportunity to pass both teams in the standings. Once again, they fell flat, losing both games by a combined score of 9-4.
The pattern repeated itself again last night in the loss to the Leafs. The Sabres had the chance to pull within three points of third place in the division but after another loss, the deficit is seven points.
The inconsistency for the team has been maddening and disappointing. This season was supposed to be when the Sabres put themselves back on the NHL map in regards to relevancy. Instead, they’ve seen one of their division rivals in the Leafs pass them in the rebuilding process and have more questions surrounding the team than answers.