By Stu Hackel
With their victory over the Capitals on Tuesday night, the Buffalo Sabres leapfrogged Washington into eighth place in the Eastern Conference. This event should not be minimized because it is amazingly rare for NHL clubs that have been out of a playoff spot by double digits in February to actually make the playoffs by season's end. Obviously, this isn't a fait accompli yet, but the fact that the Sabres were able to make up this much ground has them heading into historic territory.
On February 16, the Sabres were 10 points out of a playoff spot, and ranked 14th in the Eastern Conference. They had 54 points. The eighth place Maple Leafs had 64. In between them were the Caps (61), Jets (58), Islanders (56), Canadiens (56) and Lightning (54). Thirty-nine days later, Buffalo has climbed over all of those teams. This almost never happens.
In fact, SI's Pierre McGuire did some research and discovered that the last team to overcome a double-digit deficit it had in the month of February and reach the playoffs was the 1993-94 Islanders. So if the Sabres can do it -- and with five games left, the odds are now with them -- they'll be the first team in 17 seasons to pull off that feat.
Since mid-February, Buffalo has gone 14-3-2. That's only three regulation losses in 19 games. Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs -- who were eliminated from playoff contention on the same evening the Sabres slipped into the East's final spot -- went 4-12-3 and have now officially missed the postseason for the seventh consecutive campaign. The other teams the Sabres climbed over obviously didn't fare much better.
Where the Sabres have come from is most impressive. We looked at their struggles in January when the playoffs seemed out of the question. Mike Harrington in The Buffalo News took inventory of the team's many flaws and wrote, “The players will say otherwise because they have to, but it’s clear the playoffs should not even be in the thoughts of a club that’s 14th in the Eastern Conference and actually tied for last. The eye test shows a 10-point deficit and five teams to climb over, an arduous task.”
Two weeks later, after a 7-2 loss to the Flyers on Feb. 17, a game in which the Sabres led 2-0 after the first period, Harrington's colleague John Vogl of The Buffalo News wrote that the team's collapse brought the phrase "rock bottom" to his mind.
So how did the Sabres turn their season around?
For one thing, they barely managed to stay afloat despite key first-half injuries. Buzzbomb Tyler Ennis missed nearly half the season with ankle problems. Chief agitator Patrick Kaleta developed a groin injury shortly after serving a four-game suspension, and was out for 16 games. Quick little Nathan Gerbe missed time with a concussion (and he's out again). A knee injury kept forward Brad Boyes sidelined for 13 games. Thomas Vanek missed a few games as well. On the blueline, a broken wrist kept big Tyler Myers out of action for six weeks, Christian Ehrhoff went down for 11 games with an upper body injury (and he, too, went down again with a knee injury on Tuesday), plus assorted knocks kept Jordan Leopold and Robin Regehr out for a few games each.
But they got healthier. And, unexpectedly, they became a terrific road team. They're 11-3-1 after going 12 away games without a win in December and January.
And then there was Ryan Miller, who not only missed some games but needed time to shake off the effects of being concussed by Boston's Milan Lucic, just as it took the Sabres as a team some time to shake off their injury bug -- which hasn't quite left them. Their turnaround actually began with their goalie, who identified some flaws in his play during the All-Star break. Since then, he's returned to being the Ryan Miller of old, starting 29 of the Sabres' last 31 games (he took over for Jhonas Enroth in one more). Miller has merely been excellent with five shutouts, a goals-against average under 1.90 and a save percentage of nearly .940 in February and March. This was a guy who Sabres brass had hinted might be moved at the trade deadline.
In fact, the Sabres did move one of Miller's best friends, rugged winger Paul Gaustad, to Nashville. And they picked up Cody Hodgson from the Canucks. It took Hodgson a while to get going, but he's got eight points in his last five games and has added offensive depth to the lineup while skating with Vanek and Corey Tropp. Getting Hodgson has allowed Lindy Ruff to spread out his offense and move Vanek to that line while keeping Jason Pominville (the Sabres' most consistent forward this season) and Derek Roy together and inserting Ville Leino on their line -- hoping perhaps that will ignite the ice-cold winger.
But the line that has really made the Sabres go recently has been Ennis centering for Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford. Foligno -- the Buffalo native who is the son of former Sabre Mike Foligno and the younger brother of the Senators' Nick -- was called up from Rochester earlier this month, combined with the Ennis and Stafford, and suddenly magic happened. In the last nine games, that line has produced 17 goals and 39 points. Foligno had six goals in his first nine NHL games and that puts him in some pretty good company: Among active players, Teemu Selanne and Evgeni Malkin had eight goals in their first nine games, Devin Setoguchi had seven, and Foligno is tied with Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Ovechkin at six.
“It’s fun to watch them,” Ruff said last week. “They make a lot of good plays, show real good creativity in the offensive zone. They really like playing with each other and every time you put them out there, you feel like they have a chance to score.”
They did twice Tuesday on a pair from a rejuvenated Stafford, the first one on a play where the Sabres pressed the Caps deep in their own end, something they did effectively all night.
Washington's problems this season really begin in their own end. They've been outshot by opponents 45 times this season, compared to outshooting their foes on 31 occasions -- this from what was once the most dynamic offensive team in the NHL. When the opposition gets right on top of the Caps' defenders, they lack the ability to easily escape and move the puck to their forwards. Ruff got his forwards to attack the puckcarrier and it worked often, disrupting Washington's attack before it started.
That was just one part of Ruff's plan in his club's biggest game of the season. Ruff, too, was thought to be in trouble this winter. But there's a reason he's the longest-serving head coach in the league and he's demonstrated why in the past six weeks. Knowing he had to stop Ovechkin, who had been one of the league's hottest players with 12 points in his previous 10 games, he had his defenders play Ovie close and got a third forward to come back hard and cut off the middle. He was blanked on Tuesday night thanks to the strong defensive play from the shutdown duo Myers and Leopold, with occasional help from Alexander Sulzer and Regehr, who all gave Ovie little room to move.
The few times Ovie did shake loose, Miller was there to stop him.
Like Miller, the Sabres as a team needed to get over the Lucic hit. Their pain was more psychological, an embarrassing lack of response which branded them a soft group. They're not like that any longer. When the Caps' Brooks Laich skated straight into Miller during the first period on Tuesday, not only did Miller come right back at him (that's the photo at the top), but Thomas Vanek rushed in and crosschecked Laich to the ice, sending him sliding to the endboards.
"We've shown we have a lot of pride," Miller said after the game. "We were being questioned about our makeup and the kind of players we were for a long time. I think it's just that we knew we had better hockey. And for me it's a source of pride...You don't want to be remembered for having a horrible start and basically wasting a season. You want to battle and compete. However things turn out, I think we've showed we have pride. We're happy at the checkpoint we're at now, but five games (remain), some tough opponents and the same situation we've been in for two-and-a-half months: Gotta win."