The Buffalo Sabres ended the month of February with a win at home, against the top seed in the West, San Jose. They defeated the Sharks 3-1, with goals from Gaustad, Vanek and Pominville. Although they ended on a high note, this victory was key as the Sabres had a stretch of 5-8-4 dating back to a January 9th shootout loss in Buffalo to the Colorado Avalanche.
This was just the start of a long road trip that the Sabres had to endure. They only gained 18pts out of a possible 17 games. During the road trip Buffalo only accumulated six points out of the possible 14. That was a key turning point for not only the confidence of the team, but also the standings in the Eastern Conference. Buffalo had a stronghold on the Northeast division, leading by as many as 13 points.
After the slumping road trip, the Sabres found themselves in a struggle to hold onto that lead and are now fighting night after night to gain ground or separate themselves from Ottawa; who went on tear winning 14 out of 16 games before the Olympic break and claiming the top spot in the Northeast Division by one point and taking the overall 3rd spot in the Eastern Conference.
Now the Olympics are over and the NHLers are playing heading back home, some of them with a medal. Buffalo had five players playing in these games.
Of the four ice players, they were a combined one point and a +1; which is not really good considering the opponents and number of games. Miller has been outstanding, with a save percentage of .929 and only 8 goals against, which led the USA into the gold medal game.
What does this mean for the Sabres in the final stretch of the season and potentially last full month of action?
It means that players like Connolly, Roy, and Pominville (who are Buffalo’s top three point getters), are getting rest at home and hopefully preparing for the final stretch. Vanek (39pts), Hecht (29pts) who are one of the tops in Buffalo points, and are participating in the Olympics, could be a big risk/reward factor for this team.
If these guys can stay in stride and continue to play at a high level and even improve their points (preferably goals), then Buffalo can have confidence. It obviously has not phased goalie Ryan Miller, as his stellar play keeps on rolling. The Sabres need to feed off of his play as well as other top guys to compete in the final month to make a strong playoff push.
Every year a team has a stretch of games in which they lose ground in the standings or start to fall. Buffalo has had that time this year, and now the Olympic break is a perfect time for them to calm down, rebuild and reload. It has been called the “second season” due to the lengthy break. Buffalo has a perfect opportunity to strike hard and fast in the coming weeks.
First off they start the “second season” with games against Pittsburgh, Washington, Philadelphia and the New York Rangers. All of which are teams who are tops in the Eastern conference. All of these teams have players in the Olympics, most notably are Sidney Crosby (PIT), Alex Ovechkin (WAS), Mike Richards (PHI), Marian Gaborik, Henrik Lundqvist (NYR).
Each of these players are tops for their respective squads as well as countries. Not only are they possibly gonna be worn out because of the Olympics but they can also be a threat if they have enough time to recover.
Now just because each team has players in the Olympics, doesn’t mean they should take them lightly. If each team is worn out though, they should go full throttle and win by three or four goals.
Besides the first four games, the Sabres also have a tough schedule for the rest of the month, including a 5 game road trip that spans 8 days. The road trip includes games in Detroit, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Florida and ending with a game against the streaking Hurricanes.
None of these teams are in the playoffs…yet, but all are making there strong cases as to why they should be one of the top 8 teams in their respective conference. None of these games are going to be easy victories; Buffalo will have to play hard to win.
Buffalo has a few key games this month, which could easily determine the seeding for the playoffs. First key game is March 2nd against the Pittsburgh Penguins, in Pittsburgh. Last time these two teams played, Sidney Crosby recorded a hat trick in the win.
Now Sidney Crosby has another edge over Buffalo, but more specifically Ryan Miller, a game winning goal which clinched the gold medal for Team Canada Sunday. The next key game is Friday March 5th, in which Buffalo plays host to the 6th seed Philadelphia Flyers, this game is key because Buffalo is currently 8points ahead of Philadelphia, but with a few games being played by both squads between now and this coming Friday, Buffalo could drop another spot.
March 21st is a game against the 14th seeded Carolina Hurricanes, who started the season off to a slow start and have now picked up the pace and are 9 points out of a playoff spot. Granted, 9 points is a lot to overcome in a month, but at the pace the ‘Canes are going, whose going to stop them?
Buffalo needs to win this game so that they don’t have a potential tie breaker for a low seed, even possibly the 8th come the final week of play. Lastly a key game that is huge for this team is March 26th, in which Buffalo hosts the Senators.
This is an Ottawa team who has taken the Northeast division lead by a single point after trailing in the division by more than 10 points about two months ago. This game could be critical depending on how the standings are situated during that week. But as of now, Buffalo needs to focus on one game at a time and play the needed 60 minutes and maybe even 65 minutes on some nights.
If Ryan Miller can keep playing stellar, as well as Lindy believing that his team can do it and make this team motivated to do so (especially after the gold medal victory), then Buffalo could fly into the playoffs and dominate…but lets get through March first.
My March prediction:
11-3-2 | 2nd in East