BUFFALO (LGS) — After a decisive 5-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night, the Buffalo Sabres sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference with 71 points and only 18 games remaining in the regular season. It's officially crunch time.
With the help of General Manager Darcy Regier and the team doctors, reinforcements arrived on Wednesday. Thomas Vanek and Maxim Afinogenov returned to the lineup from injury, while center Dominic Moore and goaltender Mikael Tellqvist were acquired at the trade deadline.
Although only Vanek and Afinogenov saw the ice against the Canadiens, the attitude of the team seemed to have undergone a 180-degree transformation. The team played with a drive and speed unseen in weeks.
This new attitude will be needed to help the Sabres advance into the playoffs as parity has hit the Eastern Conference. As of Thursday night, there are only seven points separating fourth from tenth place. The Sabres are three points behind the eighth place Pittsburgh Penguins, but with two games in hand.
The Florida Panthers and New York Rangers sit in sixth and seventh in the East with 74 points as well.
The Sabres possess a favorable schedule for the stretch drive. The remaining 18 contests are evenly divided between home and away games. More important than the location of the games is the breakdown of the opponents. Only four games on the schedule are against elite teams in the NHL. Seven contests are against teams contending for the final five playoffs spots in the East, while another seven games are against non-playoff teams.
The Sabres might need to earn at least 23 points during the stretch drive to secure a playoff spot. Since the lockout ended, every team in the Eastern Conference that has earned 94 points or more has secured a playoff berth. 96 points or more have been needed to guarantee a spot in both conferences. A record of 10-5-3 down the stretch ought to be enough to get the job done.
On paper, the hardest games remaining on the schedule are against Division leaders Washington, New Jersey, Detroit and Boston. These four contests could decide Buffalo's playoff fate this season. Unfortunately for the Sabres, their games against these elite opponents comprise four of the team's last six contests. On the bright side, three of the four games are at HSBC including the season finale on April 11 against Boston.
The Sabres have been surprisingly effective against the elite teams remaining on the schedule. Buffalo possesses a 6-6-0 mark against these opponents, including a stellar 3-2-0 margin over Boston and a 2-1-0 edge on New Jersey. Success in these four games could be the difference between playing hockey in April and May instead of golf. Prediction: 2-1-1.
The seven matches remaining against the contenders in the East feature three home games and four road games. Buffalo plays Florida and Philadelphia twice each in addition to Carolina, Montreal and the Rangers once.
The Sabres have been extremely effective against their nearest competitors. Buffalo sports a 10-6-3 mark against these teams, including records of 3-0-0 against the Rangers, 3-1-1 versus Montreal and 2-1-1 versus Pittsburgh. Prediction 4-2-1.
Buffalo has seven games remaining on the schedule against teams at the bottom of the standings in the two conferences. The contests include two matches each against Toronto, Ottawa and Atlanta as well as Friday's home game against Phoenix.
The Sabres have struggled all season against "lesser" opponents. Buffalo is a disappointing 8-7-3 against the five teams at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, and 4-4-3 against their remaining four non-playoff opponents. This pitiful record includes a 0-0-2 mark against the Thrashers and a lousy 1-2-1 record against the hated Senators.
If the Sabres don't correct this trend of playing down to the level of their opponents, the team and their fans can forget earning a playoff berth. Prediction: 4-2-1.
Scouting The Opponents
While the Sabres have a favorable schedule for the stretch drive, of the seven teams contending for the final five playoff berths in the East, Montreal possesses arguably the easiest schedule. The Canadians have only two games against the elite clubs in the conference and nine contests against the squads at the bottom of the standings. The Habs also play 11 of their remaining 18 games in Montreal.
The two hardest schedules belong to the Rangers and Hurricanes. The Rangers have 14 games remaining against either elite NHL teams or squads fighting for a playoff berth in both conferences. The Rangers also play nine of their remaining 17 contests on the road. Their playoff fate could be decided in two sets of back-to-back matches against the fourth-place Flyers.
There are no breathers on Carolina's schedule. Thirteen of the Hurricanes' 17 remaining games are against elite teams or squads fighting for a playoff spot, including three matches with the Brodeur-led Devils.