Are the Sabres Really in the Hunt?

It’s been eight years. Eight long, deprived, frustrating years since the Buffalo Sabres last qualified for the postseason. It’s the NHL’s longest-running streak of playoff iniquity, and the fans have let the organization know, in no uncertain terms of its disapproval.

So, as unfamiliar as it’s been over the past eight seasons, there is a growing sense among the fanbase that perhaps this year, the team is actually in a position to make a run at clinching that oh so elusive playoff berth. The question is, are they really in such a conversation?

For the majority of January, Sabres’ fans began to align themselves back with a familiar friend; the draft lottery. The team was no-where close to a playoff spot, and it seemed very likely that conversations would turn to where the team would be slotted in the draft lottery, and thusly, which high-end prospects fans would get to dream about. That occurrence is still a distinct possibility, but the team currently is on a bit of a streak, which has allowed fans of the spring event to take pause.

The Sabres have gone 6-3-1 in their last 10 games as of this writing. They’ve found depth scoring, with players like Kyle Okposo lighting the lamp multiple times in a win against the Winnipeg Jets. They’ve found at least fairly average goaltending for the most part during this streak, which has kept them in most games. (Aside from that debacle in Ottawa)

The mini-streak gave GM Jason Botterill at least a bit of confidence at the Trade Deadline to make two moves that ultimately could help the team make a run at clinching a berth, to perhaps even helping the team long-term. He acquired veteran Wayne Simmonds and young forward Dominik Kahun, both of whom are expected to make an impact of some magnitude during the home-stretch. The question that has to be asked though, is, will those moves be enough? Let’s take a deeper dive into the teams the Sabres are chasing.

First, let’s take a deep-dive look at what the Sabres have done over their past 10 games. They’ve compiled a 6-3-1 record, which has seen them gain some ground in the playoff race. Their underlying numbers though, show more of an average performance than anything.

In the last 10 games, Buffalo ranks 19th in Corsi-For, 18th in Expected Goals-For, 16th in Scoring Chances-For, and 12th in High-Danger Corsi-For Percentages. These numbers don’t necessarily inspire anyone to think that they’re on a torrid pace of offensive performance, but it does show great growth from where their season averages are.

Where Buffalo is getting a great boost is in their PDO (the sum of their shooting percentage and save percentage). The Sabres rank 9th in the NHL over this stretch in this category, which shows how well the goaltenders have played and how efficiently the team has shot the puck during this time.

Most fans are focusing on the race in the Atlantic division, so we’ll start there, and with the team Buffalo is chasing directly over them, the Florida Panthers.

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The Sabres are currently six points back of Florida and with one game in-hand. The Panthers have struggled over their last 10 games, compiling a 4-6 record, and their underlying stats do not paint a pretty picture. Florida ranks no higher over their last 10 games than 26th league-wide when considering Corsi-For, Expected Goals-For, Scoring Chances For, and High-Danger Corsi For Percentages. This is showing that Florida is really struggling in the offensive department, and any wins they are achieving are most likely due to average goaltending, as their PDO places them at 18th in the league over their last 10 contests.

To add insult to injury, Florida traded one of their best young centers in Vincent Trocheck to the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday, whereupon they received two depth forwards, but no one of his impact. Thus, it seems likely that their offensive woes will continue, and Buffalo will have a chance to catch them.

The team that currently holds the third and final postseason position in the Atlantic division is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Currently, Buffalo is eight points behind Toronto but has two games in-hand. Toronto has struggled a bit of late, which prompted some fans to clamor for big changes at the trade deadline. GM Kyle Dubas did very little of consequence, aside from the forward acquisition of Denis Malgin from the Florida Panthers. To make matters worse, they just lost defensive stalwart Jake Muzzin to a broken hand for the next four weeks. Their advanced numbers though, show some hope.

Over their last 10 games, in which they’ve gone 5-4-1, the Leafs rank in the top half of the offensive categories listed above. They are actually creating consistent offense, though not actually capitalizing as much as they theoretically should. Their PDO is a reflection of that, as they rank 21st, league-wide in the last 10. So, not only has their shooting been inefficient, but they’ve not gotten very strong goaltending either. Throw into the mix a demoralizing loss to a Zamboni-driving back-up goaltender, and it’s been a rough stretch for Toronto. Though, if their goaltending improves to just league-average, the law of averages says that their offensive numbers should come along, making Buffalo’s push to catch them a difficult one.

Lastly, if you’re looking to a wild-card berth for Buffalo, right now you’re targeting the Columbus Blue Jackets, who hold that coveted spot. Columbus sits 10 points ahead of the Sabres, though Buffalo does have three games in-hand. Columbus sees themselves in a remarkably similar spot to Toronto over their past 10 contests.

Columbus has had a very tough win-loss situation, going 1-4-5 in their last 10, though the underlying numbers really favor a break to that slump. In all of the offensive categories listed for the above teams, Columbus ranks no lower than 14th in any of them! That’s a team that has only won once in 10 games, yet is producing better than league-average offensive play. The fault lies in a really similar way to Toronto; shooting efficiency and goaltending. Columbus ranks 28th in the league in PDO during their skid. Again, if they merely get average goaltending, and continue with what they’re doing on the offensive side, it’ll make catching them most difficult for Buffalo.

So, what does this mean for the Sabres? Seemingly, Buffalo could catch Florida in a somewhat easy manner, considering current trends. Unfortunately, they also then have to catch Toronto or Columbus if their play-off aspirations are to come to fruition. Given what we’re seeing from the advanced stats, it seems like a very daunting task. If Buffalo is going to have any chance, they’ll have to win 14 or 15 of their last 20 games, which is quite difficult. However, all fans have wanted for the last eight years is a chance to see meaningful hockey in March, and it looks as though, at the very least, they’ll get that wish.