After their 18th game of the season, the Buffalo Sabres had a 3-13-2 record and were being talked about the way you talk about that cousin nobody in your family likes to talk about: in hushed tones, with faint hope that things will turn around for them.
One month later – and after Monday's 5-4 shootout win over the division rival Senators – they're riding a four-game win streak and a six-game home win streak, their longest since they won the Presidents' Trophy in 2006-07. Their record in that time is 10-3-0, and they're only two standings points behind the Sens, four points behind the Bruins, and four points out of the final wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference.
That's correct. The Sabres could make the playoffs this season. This may give you the distinct sensation of being in a dreamlike state, but this is in fact occurring in real life.
Unlike the Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes, who've followed up bad starts to the season with more awful play of late, Buffalo has learned how to win again. They've beaten the Leafs, Kings, Sharks, Flames, Lightning and Canadiens, among others. They had only scored three or more goals three times in their first 18 games, but have scored four or more goals six times in their next 13 games. Goalie Jhonas Enroth has made the starter's job his own and given them solid, often-spectacular performances. Their PDO rating is on the verge of climbing into the top 10 in the league. There's a lot to like right now.
Some were thinking the Sabres would turn out to be competitively futile on a historical level, but under coach Ted Nolan and a collection of veterans – including captain Brian Gionta, winger Matt Moulson and defenseman Josh Gorges – with no shortage of pride, they've refused to accept expectations. There's still every likelihood Buffalo's lack of organizational depth will be exposed by injuries and increased pressure as the season continues on and they'll wind up closer to the bottom of the east than a playoff spot. But team management has to be pleased to see this patchwork group come together and at least play for one another.
After some of the lacklustre Sabres teams of recent seasons, that's as solid a block for GM Tim Murray to build on as he could hope for.