If the Buffalo Sabres are going to make the 2020 NHL Playoffs, they’d better start playing playoff hockey right now. Every point matters.
The Sabres have 51 points and are tied with the Montreal Canadiens in 11th place in the Eastern Conference. To catch the second wild card team, the Carolina Hurricanes, they need to jump over three teams and make up 10 points.
Mathematically, anything is possible. According to moneypuck.com, they have an 8.2% chance of making the playoffs.
Skinner Is Back
Jeff Skinner is scheduled to return to action Tuesday night against the Ottawa Senators, his first game since being injured during a check against the Boston Bruins back on Dec. 27. The winger has been skating during the All-Star break and was thrilled to be back on the ice with his teammates Monday morning. “I felt good. I was the only one that wasn’t rusty out there,” laughed Skinner.
If the Sabres are going to mount any kind of run, they need to see production from their recently signed eight-year, $72 million winger. Though he was getting chances, he hasn’t scored a goal in his last 12 games.
The team went 5-5-0 without him as he watched from above. “You get more of an opportunity to sit back and watch it from a larger perspective, so I was able to take the game in as a whole,” said Skinner after practice. “I don’t really know if you learn anything, but I think you get a little better understanding of how things are going. At the same time, you get a little bit of a refreshment from the day-to-day grind.”
Mountain to Climb to get into the Playoffs
Heading into the All-Star break, the Sabres won five of eight games. While decent, that pace from here on out just won’t cut it.
The Sabres need to catch fire. With only 33 games remaining, they likely have to pick up 46 points (a .700 points percentage) to stand a chance of sniffing the postseason. Their upcoming home stretch is just what the doctor ordered for head coach Ralph Krueger and company. And they’re starting with a team – Ottawa – they should beat. At least on paper.
The Sabres need to leapfrog both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers. The Leafs are eight points ahead and the Flyers are nine points ahead of the Sabres.
Sabres’ Home Cooking
Nine of the Sabres’ next 10 games are at KeyBank Center, where they have a respectable 14-5-3 record (add in a “home” loss while they were in Europe). While struggling with special teams this season, the Sabres are doing well on home ice. It’s a goal they set early on – to establish their barn as a tough place for opponents to play.
“There’s going to be some good battles ahead,” said Krueger. “This group looks battle-ready to be and feels battle-ready and you can feel a freshness that’s channeled down the right path right now, so may we turn that into some good hockey here.”
“I have to say that what we feel is a real comfort here playing in front of our home crowd and playing in our building,” continued Krueger. “We made it a goal this year to make it a difficult place to play in and we believe it is that and we need to feed on that and make sure we don’t get comfortable being at home, either.
“It’s an opportunity that we all know will decide which direction this season goes, and we need to jump and be an outstanding home team here for the next few weeks.”
Sabres’ Road Woes
To make up ground, the wins are going to have to come on the road, too. They only have eight regulation road wins this season (8-14-4), the third fewest in the conference.
Goaltender Carter Hutton has only two road victories this season and they both came in the first two weeks of the season. He’s clearly struggling.
Despite their horrendous road record, the Sabres did win two of their last three away from home before the break. They need to maintain that pace.
Krueger’s “Small” Big Picture
Krueger likes to stay in the moment and not think too far ahead. He doesn’t look too far ahead, rather focusing on the game at hand. “We’re working in very small pictures of development here and we are pushing each other to continue the growth every day and not to do anything other than take care of what we need to take care of.”
It’s no mystery that this team needs to pull off a killer streak or two to gain ground and snap their league-worst eight-season playoff drought.
“We know there’s some business ahead, everyone’s clear about that. We speak openly about it. But as soon as the path ahead and the challenge of it is clear, we get back to a small picture. That’s what we’re going to do right now, is keep it small, keep pushing each other to improve, keep cementing the type of hockey we need to play to be competitive and to be a top team in this league.”– Ralph Krueger
Krueger still has a lot of belief in his roster. “We all knew it wouldn’t happen overnight, but we want to fight for that here every day.”
Deadline Help and Plan Moving Forward
A lot has to go right if the Sabres are going to make a push. Like, almost everything.
Veteran players Jimmy Vesey, Conor Sheary and Marcus Johansson need to start adding some secondary scoring. The power play has to start scoring again. And the 11 forward–seven defensemen shuffle needs to stop. This team needs consistent pairings that can play to their strengths, regularly.
With the NHL Trade Deadline looming, they need to figure out what they have in Colin Miller, Brandon Montour and Sam Reinhart. Zach Bogosian, who asked out, should not see the ice again. His bloated salary should be sent to press box while general manager Jason Botterill can work a deal of any sort to move him.
For all intents and purposes, every game and every point matters for the Sabres. Their playoffs start right now.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”