On February 15th, the Sabres were 15th in the East, and 10 points out of the top 8.
No team has ever come from that far back to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs since the lockout. (EDIT: the Sabres are looking to become the first team in NHL history to be in last place in the conference in January and make the playoffs.) Now, just over a month after dwelling at rock bottom, the Sabres have tied the Capitals for 8th place. (OK, officially they’re in 9th. Both teams have secured 82 points, but Washington holds all the tiebreakers.)
So how did we get here?
1. Ryan Miller. He’s quietly amassed 5 shutouts over his last 23 games (going back to February 1st), tying him for the NHL lead with Ilya Bryzgalov. He hasn’t lost in regulation since March 5th. Since the All Star break, he has a 14-3-5 record, a 2.02 GAA, and a .932 save%. He’s back, and he summed up his success and the team’s surge perfectly for ESPN:
Goalie reflects team. Team reflects goalie.
Once I was healthy I started building back my focus and awareness, and that took some time. … I noticed my game turning when my mind was more at ease and I settled down and allowed the play to unfold. … All of which came when we started being a more responsible team. Knowing my guys are around me allows me to read the play and commit to saves. Without them, I have to cover more options, and the odds of making a save or second save aren’t as good. Having the boys cover my back and work hard makes my job easier.
Top-seeded teams are no doubt taking notice of Miller’s play, along with the Sabres’ overall defensive revival. No one wants to face a Sabres team this focused in their own zone (see: New York Rangers, March 23rd,3rd period, unable to score as Ehrhoff and Roy played back-up netminders to Miller as the Rags could only shoot in vain.)
2. The Sabres are scoring again, in droves. Travis Turnbull became the 29th Sabre to find the back of the net this season – Columbus leads the league with 30. To put that in better perspective, Buffalo has had goals from 30 players three times in 41 seasons, most recently in the 1991-92 season. Meanwhile, there’s that red hot 82-63-21 line. In the past 7 games alone, Tyler Ennis has 5 goals for 12 points and is a +12. Drew Stafford has 4 goals for 12 points and is a +10. Marcus Foligno has 5 goals for 9 points and is a +7.
Stats aside, there’s some new intrigue emerging here, and it’s all in the quotes, which Miller started us off with. Here’s a couple lines from Tyler Ennis after tonight’s win:
I think we’re just really confident. We know what we have to do. It seems like Washington keeps winning, so we have to keep winning. But we’re a confident bunch. Every game is a new test for us. We just have to focus on the next game. We’re playing well, Millsy seems to be stopping everything and that’s giving us a lot of confidence.
It reinforces how bad we want to make the playoffs. The Rangers are the top team in the East, and they’ve played great hockey all year. We came out and played pretty sound in all areas, and I think it shows how bad we want to make the playoffs.
As for that team they’re tied for 8th with? Let’s leave it to Karl Alzner to sum up how things are in the Caps’ locker room right now, after blowing a 3-0 lead en route to an OT loss to Winnipeg:
We s*** the bed.
As for that team we’re now chasing for 7th? The Senators just allowed 3 goals in the opening 5:41 to Eric Cole and his 15th place Habs. The Sens’ shoddy goaltending has them reeling in what looks like a death spiral. They’re just 1-3-2 in their last 6 games. Here’s what coach Paul MacLean had to say about his team’s troubles before the puck dropped against the Habs:
We’re still in the top third of the league as far as goals scored are concerned. That’s something that gives us the confidence we’re going to score goals again. Something has to spark it. Usually it’s the power play that gets it going. Then somebody gets hot, and away you go, you’re scoring goals again. We believe we’re going to score goals, and it’s going to be tonight.
The Sens went on to fall 5-1.
But let’s not stop there. Even the almighty Bruins are a wreck of late. Since February 1st, they are just 10-14-1. The Bruins are 5 points up and have two games in hand over Buffalo, but heck, they have to play 9 games in the next 15 days – once every two days – with their last game against (you guessed it) the Sabres. Here’s what Tim Thomas had to say, after a 2-1 defeat in San Jose:
We’re having a hard time picking up momentum, and keeping it for long periods of time. We proved recently what kind of game we can play. If you asked me before this game, I would have thought we’d carry it over. I thought after our last game we had turned a corner.
Hopefully we still have.
Keep hoping, Tim. Boston hasn’t won 3 games in a row since a 7 game winning streak waaaaay back in December. They’ve lost four straight road games, the longest such streak in three years, and dropped five of the last six away from TD Garden.
Yeah, it’s safe to say that there is a lot of turmoil in the NE Division right now. Meanwhile, Buffalo is surging, and carries a strong 12-5-4 record in the NE.
How much of your brain is saying “Whoa there!” at all this blunderbuss? Chances are a good portion of your mind is actually saying “We have a legit shot at the division.” That’s what happens when confidence is brimming. It makes fans and players alike envision victory. The Sabres look to have the guts and the gusto to do just that, as this division and conference stumble alongside them.
Simply put: envision it to win it.
The Sabres have 7 games left to prove that their confidence, and this heroic run, is for real. But right now, it sure feels like they’ve got the sharpest edge on the ice, and in the locker room.
“How did we get here?”
That doesn’t matter anymore, does it? All that matters now is where are we going next – be it the NE Division crown or just a spot in the Top 8. It really doesn’t matter which, so long as the Sabres just keep pace with themselves.