Building the Sabres’ Path to the Playoffs

The time has come for the Buffalo Sabres to get some rest. Entering the bye week, the Sabres find themselves where most would have expected them to be at this point at the beginning of the season. After playing 49 games, they have a record of 22-20-7, good for 51 points and an overall pace of 85 points.

This has them right in the thick of things in the Eastern Conference. Although the odds of them actually qualifying for the playoffs are small, the path to make it there is not completely inconceivable.

At the bye week of the 2017-18 season, the Sabres were on pace for an abysmal 62 points and finished with 62 points. In the 2018-19 season, the Sabres entered the bye on pace for 92 points. In the weeks leading up to that, however, cracks were beginning to show in the lineup and it appeared the team was not remotely as good as it’s hot November. They finished with 76 points.

Buffalo Sabres Jack Eichel
Buffalo Sabres Jack Eichel has given his team a chance at a playoff berth (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

This season just feels a little different. While their current pace is not as high as last season’s team at this point, what they’ve accomplished feels more sustainable. The defensive structure that coach Ralph Krueger has the team playing is a safe, reliable system that teams lacking excessive offensive talent can succeed with.

Receiving a stellar season from Jack Eichel also makes anything seem possible with this team. He has been able to take over games and affect his will on opponents at a level we have yet to see in his career. Rasmus Dahlin has seen a resurgence since suffering a concussion. Coming out of the break, the Sabres can expect to get injured forwards Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson back which will no doubt be a boost to the offence.

If Botterill can bolster the lineup with a move for an impact forward, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that this team can make it. Micah Blake McCurdy has a projection that 97 points will be required to qualify for the postseason in the Eastern Conference with the Sabres currently holding a seven percent chance of making it. If that’s the case, the Sabres will have to finish something along the lines of 20-7-6 over their last 33 games. That may seem like a longshot but we are here to outline just how the Sabres can pull off the improbable. Their remaining games can be categorized in one of four categories.

Sabres Against Teams They Are Chasing

At this point, the Sabres basically have five teams they are trying to catch: the Toronto Maple Leafs (six points back), Philadelphia Flyers (nine points back with a game in hand), Columbus Blue Jackets (nine points back with a game in hand), Carolina Hurricanes (10 points back with a game in hand) and Florida Panthers (10 points back). The Panthers may be out of reach at this point but we’ll include them in this exercise.

The Sabres have eight games remaining against these opponents – one against the Maple Leafs, two against the Flyers, two against the Blue Jackets, two against the Hurricanes and one against the Panthers. That means that 21 percent of their games will be a four-point swing. While it may appear that they are currently too far out of the playoff race, winning these games can significantly close the gap and make the race at least interesting.

Buffalo Sabres Jack Eichel Toronto Maple Leafs Jason Spezza
The Sabres have some work to do to catch the Maple Leafs (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

What do the Sabres need to get out of these eight games? It feels like they should be trying to gain at least 11 of the 16 available points. If they could go something like 4-1-3 over this stretch while losing the regulation game to the Panthers, that could do the trick to successfully complete this segment of the schedule. It would mean that they would need a .688 points percentage over those games. Such a feat is not completely out of the question as the Sabres have a combined record of 4-2-3 (.611 win percentage) against these opponents so far this season, proving that they can play with these teams as currently constructed.

If the Sabres can take care of business against the teams they are chasing, it can really open things up for them to make a push for the playoffs. If they flounder in these games, it will be time to sell off expiring contracts and plan for another extended offseason. Their success in these games can make the next section of games that much more valuable to them earning a playoff berth.

Sabres Against Teams Below Them in the Eastern Conference

Games against teams below them in the conference can be a major boon for the Sabres. The good news for them is that they have 10 games remaining against such teams: Ottawa Senators (two games), Montreal Canadiens (three games), Detroit Red Wings (two games), New York Rangers (two games) and New Jersey Devils (one game). That means that 30 percent of their remaining schedule is against teams in their conference that they have been superior to up to this point.

These matchups are gold for the Sabres. Beating these opponents accomplishes two things. First, these games provide greater odds for the team to gain points. Secondly, winning them, especially in regulation, keeps these teams from being able to surpass you in the standings.

Artem Anisimov Tyler Ennis Mark Borowiecki
The Sabres must win their remaining matchups with the Senators (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang)

What should the Sabres be looking to accomplish over this stretch of the schedule? Of the 20 available points, they should be aiming to get at least 16, a .800 winning percentage. So far this season, the Sabres have a record of 6-2-0 against these opponents, good for a .857 winning percentage. If they can continue to beat these teams that they really should beat, they can make a move for the playoffs.

Not all of their remaining schedule will be quite as cushy as these 10 games. The Sabres will be facing adversity, especially in March.

Sabres Against Teams Significantly Higher in the Standings

The Sabres have eight games remaining against teams that are at least 11 points higher than them in the standings. They play the Colorado Avalanche (two games), Pittsburgh Penguins (two games), Washington Capitals (two games), New York Islanders (one game) and Boston Bruins (one game). Five of these eight games will come in the month of March. Twenty-four percent of the Sabres remaining opponents have the ability to run them out of the building.

These teams are laden with veterans and world-class coaching which have helped them climb the standings and stay among the elite teams in the league, all of them currently in the top-seven of the NHL.

To say the Sabres will have their hands full would be an understatement. So far this season, they have gone a combined 1-5-1 against these opponents, good for a dismal .214 points percentage. A line like that going forward will simply not cut it. If the Sabres want to be serious about this season and really make an advancement for something more, they will need to find a way to collect points in these games.

Washington Capitals Alex Ovechkin Nicklas Backstrom
Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin celebrates with Nicklas Backstrom will present a significant challenge to the Sabres (AP Photo/Al Drago)

The bottom line is, there are 16 points available here and the Sabres need to collect nine of them. A stretch of 4-3-1 against the elite teams in the league may be a tall order, but they need to reach that .563 points percentage. This is where management can really help the squad out by finding a way to augment the offence they have received from Eichel and Olofsson and take some of the pressure off of Linus Ullmark and the defence.

Of these eight games, five of them will be played at home. The Sabres are currently 15th in the league in points gained at home. The next 33 games will be the time for them to establish a real home-ice advantage and get the crowd into games. If they fail to do that, March could be curtains for this season.

There is one final segment of games left in this season for the Sabres. The opponents are not as familiar and the outcomes of games not as impactful as the previous segments. Still, it is essential that the Sabres execute and get results.

Sabres Against Similar Western Conference Teams

The final seven remaining games of the Sabres’ 2019-20 season consist of them playing some unfamiliar foes from the Western Conference that have similar point totals to the Sabres. They play the Anaheim Ducks once (43 points), Winnipeg Jets twice (54 points), Vegas Golden Knights once (57 points), Arizona Coyotes once (57 points), Chicago Blackhawks once (54 points) and Minnesota Wild once (50 points).

Thus far, we have ascribed 35 points to the Sabres. To meet the projection of 97, they will need to garner 10 of the available 14 points from these Western Conference foes. The Sabres will need another 4-1-2 stretch in these games to have any hope of breaking their non-playoff streak.

Of these seven games, only three will be played in Buffalo. This could present a problem as the Sabres are 25th in the league with a .385 road points percentage. To date, the Sabres have gone 1-3-1 against these opponents which will obviously not cut it.

Patrick Kane Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago Blackhawks right wing and Buffalo native Patrick Kane will look to light up the Sabres (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

What can the Sabres do to get over the hump during this stretch? Make some moves at the trade deadline. Five of the seven games in this segment will occur after the Feb. 24 trade deadline, giving the Sabres time to add some fresh faces in the hopes that it can spur them to victory.

A successful February will go a long way to confirming that the Sabres will be buyers at the deadline. If they can take care of business after the bye and be knocking on the playoff door, Botterill will have to do something to reward them. At the same time, teams like the Ducks and Wild may see themselves as being out of the playoff race and begin selling off their expiring contracts. If some of the teams in this segment can begin to fall off, the Sabres could possibly have a chance.

Sabres Need Help to Make the Postseason

It goes without saying but the Sabres will certainly need help in order to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since the 2010-11 season. They will need help from management to bolster the current lineup and add some scoring punch. They will need help from some other teams beginning to fall off or perhaps take them lightly.

They will also need to help themselves. Their current .520 points percentage will need to evolve into a .697 points percentage down the stretch. Such an evolution would probably be asking too much out of this lineup as currently constructed. If they were to suffer a significant injury to either Eichel or Ullmark, no amount of trade deadline wizardry could resurrect their playoff hopes.

Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill
Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill needs to bolster his lineup(AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes, File)

While not extremely likely, the Sabres do still have a shot at the playoffs. With 30 percent of their remaining schedule coming against teams below them in the standings and another 21 percent featuring four-point swings with the teams they are chasing, over half of the games should carry some intrigue.

With some help from within and without, the Sabres can make this season a memorable one and no longer carry the mantle of the league’s longest playoff drought. Will they? It all starts Tuesday.