Let me preface this blog entry by saying that about a month and a half ago, the word playoffs around Sabres nation was so laughable it got to a point where a Jim Mora reference would be suitable to describe Buffalo’s predicament. The Sabres were dead last in the eastern conference at one point. Admittedly, even I had little to no hope that Buffalo would be able to make up that ground, and can even remember having discussions with friends about the draft and what pick we would have and who we might pick up.
It’s amazing to say that after being cellar dwellers in the east and showing no signs of optimism or improvement on the ice, that the Buffalo Sabres are currently tied for the eighth and final seed in the conference with six games to play. It’s baffling. Just as they did last year, however, the Sabres have made another highly improbable run in the standings during the past few months that has Sabres nation thinking playoffs.
In their past 28 games, Buffalo is 18-5-5 and 7-1-2 in their last ten. After their victory over the Minnesota Wild last night, Buffalo finished in a playoff spot for the first time since December 19th, nearly 100 days ago. Buffalo’s surge has been a direct result of a plethora of things. First, and most importantly, management didn’t sell at the deadline. It was a big question going into the deadline day in late February. Owner Terry Pegula and general manager Darcy Regier played their cards right in acquiring a first round pick for long-time Sabre Paul Gaustad from the Predators. They then dealt Zach Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani for Cody Hodgson and Alex Sulzer. Essentially, Sabres fans knew they were getting a potential top line center with a tremendous upside in Hodgson, but nobody knew exactly what they were getting in the defenseman Sulzer.
Sulzer, however, has turned out to be a pleasant surprise. He has played very well in his time in a Sabres uniform, and I think that the coaching staff instilled confidence in him by giving him the chance to prove that he can play, and he definitely has done that. Hodgson has really started to come into his own as well. He struggled somewhat to produce after the trade, but he has really started catching fire lately, as he has three goals and three assists as a member of the Buffalo Sabres.
Certainly you never want to give up a player like Kassian, a power forward with a scoring touch. Buffalo has lacked a player like him for a long time. However, management proved they made the right decision because they knew what they had in their farm system. Marcus Foligno, a call up from the Rochester Americans, has filled the void left by the departure of Kassian. Foligno, brother of Ottawa Senators forward Nick Foligno, and son of former Sabre Mike Foligno, has been stellar. In nine games with Buffalo this season, Foligno has six goals and four assists. To put that in perspective, six goals is the same amount that forwards Brad Boyes and Ville Leino both have, but they’ve played in 61 and 65 games respectively.
Foligno’s scoring tear has put him into some good company, as he has joined a group of elite active players in the NHL who have scored six or more goals in the first nine games of their career. That group includes players like Teemu Selanne, Evgeni Malkin, Devin Setoguchi, Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Ovechkin, and then of course, Foligno. His emergence has been big for the Sabres, but there are a few more reasons why Buffalo has been able to revive their playoff hopes.
Players like Ryan Miller, Jason Pominville and Tyler Ennis are all playing at an elite level right now. Miller won all four of his starts last week, and posted a record of 7-0-2 in his last nine games, a stretch of time in which he only yielded 18 goals. Pominville has also been a big part of the Sabres success this season, as he has 28 goals and 39 assists this year. Captain clutch has played in every game this season, and has been every bit the captain that Buffalo has been searching for since the departure of Chris Drury and Danny Briere following the 2006-2007 season. Then of course, there’s Tyler Ennis. The Sabres are a completely different team without him in the lineup. When he’s healthy, he’s one of the most electrifying forwards in the league, and he flies around the arena. He has had an incredible month of March, and if the Sabres do indeed get into the postseason, I would imagine that he could do some serious damage.
The Sabres have several important games coming up, but none of them even come close to this Tuesday’s game against the Capitols in Washington. The Sabres and Caps are currently tied for the last playoff spot in the east with 84 points with six games to go. This is a must win game for Buffalo, as the Capitals already hold the tiebreaker over them in the standings, meaning if they were to finish with the same amount of points at the end of the season Washington would earn the final postseason berth. A loss to the Caps on Tuesday will all but dash the Sabres hopes for the playoffs, barring a situation where Buffalo wins out and get some help in the form of Washington losing some games. . Tuesday’s game is the most important game of the season bar none. They absolutely have to win that game; if they do, they’re in the driver’s seat. Buffalo controls their own destiny. Now they just have to get it done on the ice.