So, here we sit, Sabres fans. Tied with the Washington Capitals for the eighth and final playoff spot with eight games left to play. The Buffalo Sabres may not make the playoffs when it’s all said and done, and yet, everything still seems so surreal — again.
That’s because the Sabres have once again overcome insurmountable odds — for the second year in a row — by climbing out of the basement of the Eastern Conference to compete for a playoff spot.
We all know last year’s story. The 2010/11 Sabres were a dysfunctional disaster before Terry Pegula swooped in to propel the team into the playoffs. This year’s installment is both eerily similar and incredibly different.
The Sabres found themselves floundering at the bottom of the conference, residing as low as 15th at one point, but since Feb. 17, the team has gone 11-2-3, bringing them back to the surface, in contention for a playoff spot yet again.
When you look back to last season, one overriding factor ultimately lead to the Sabres’ uncanny turnaround — Terry Pegula. This season, there have been a number of different factors that have led to another massive turnaround. Here are five of them.
1. Tyler Ennis
After a poor start to the season, Tyler Ennis fell victim to a rash of injuries, like most other Sabres. The promising second-year forward proceeded to miss 35 games, including all of November and most of January.
Forced to watch the Sabres struggle from the press box, many people began to forget the talent level Ennis is capable of playing at. But since his return on Jan. 31, Ennis has reminded us all why we can expect great things from the former first-round draft choice going forward.
Ennis has scored eight goals and 11 assists in 21 games since the Sabres dismantled the Bruins, 6-0, back on Feb. 8. Shortly there after, the Sabres took to the road for a five-game West Coast road trip that can be referred to as the Sabres’ ultimate turning point this season. Over that road trip, Ennis recorded a point in each game aside from the loss to Winnipeg in the final game.
But so far, that trip hasn’t even been the highlight of Ennis’ return. Most recently, since the Sabres recalled Marcus Foligno, Ennis has been on fire while centering the 20-year-old forward and Drew Stafford. Before last night’s 3-0 win over Montreal, Ennis had been on a five-game point streak, totalling nine points over that span. His production since Lindy Ruff moved the former winger to the center position has been outstanding, leaving many (myself included) wondering why he hadn’t been playing center since Day One.
On top of Ennis’ recent offensive output, the Sabres’ PR staff tossed out an interesting stat during last night’s game. Ennis has won 51.6% of his faceoffs since moving back to the center position on Mar. 10 against the Senators. Considering the league leader, Rich Peverley (at least 300 faceoffs), has won 61.7 percent of his draws, and Paul Gaustad, regarded as one of the league’s best in the dot, sits at 57.5 percent, I’d say that’s pretty good for a guy who was supposed to play at the wing all season long.
The Sabres will need Ennis to continue his scoring pace if they wish to make the playoffs (he was pointless last night, snapping his five-game point streak). Ruff said he was disappointed with how the Ennis-Foligno-Stafford line played against Montreal, which was surprising given how hot they had been coming in, but there’s no doubt Ennis has been the driving factor behind that group and the Sabres’ strong second half. At this point, there’s no reason to suggest he plans on slowing down any time soon.
2. Ryan Miller
This one’s obvious. The Sabres wouldn’t be where they are today if it weren’t for Ryan Miller. After beginning his season on an awful note, Miller has rebounded to become one of the best goalies in the league since the All-Star break.
Since the Sabres’ Feb. 17 overtime loss to the Canadiens, Miller is 11-1-3, and has recorded three shutouts, playing in virtually every single game as Ruff continues to keep backup Jhonas Enroth on the bench. Even the biggest Ryan Miller bashers have to admit that, on most nights, the former Vezina-winning goaltender has appeared absolutely dialed in, reminiscent of 2010. In fact, some nights the defense had been so bad, you’d wonder how it was Miller was able to make many of the saves he had made.
The prevailing point here is that Miller is back, and that means the Sabres are, too. So long as Ryan Miller is on top of his game, the Sabres have a chance to win any game they play. That’s the beauty of having a goalie of Miller’s caliber on your team at this time of year.
It took him a little while, but Miller has proven all his doubters wrong, carrying the Sabres back to relevance and into the thick of the playoff race. The Sabres’ playoff hopes hinge the play of Miller over these final eight games, and he’s showing no signs of letting up.
3. Derek Roy and Drew Stafford
If Tyler Ennis and Ryan Miller have emerged to fulfill their respective roles we had all anticipated coming into this season, then you certainly can’t overlook what Roy and Stafford have done, as they, too, have their hands right in on the Sabres’ recent success.
There has been arguably no bigger disappointments on the Sabres this season, aside from maybe Ville Leino. Unlike virtually the rest of the Sabres’ roster, Roy and Stafford have spent much of the 2011/12 campaign healthy as can be, and that’s the problem.
With their teammates ailing, it came as no surprise that Stafford and Roy failed to take over the reins and lead the Sabres through the tough times. Stafford had scored just eight goals heading into February, and Roy wasn’t much better, having only scored just nine. But since Feb. 1, Stafford and Roy have totalled 19 and 16 points, respectively.
Stafford has been the more productive player of late, as part of the aforementioned Ennis line, and had been on a four-game point streak (nine points) before going pointless during last night’s game (although he did register four shots, and had at least twice that in scoring chances). Stafford now has 42 points on the season, just 10 points back from the career-high 52 he had last year (although injuries factored into last season’s total).
Roy had been hot a few weeks ago while on a four-game point streak from Feb. 16-21. After a slight lull, Ruff juggled him over to a line with leading scorer Jason Pominville and Ville Leino, who has been playing much better of late, as well. Roy had two assists last night and was all over the puck, recording four shots in the win. It’s not a stretch to say we’ve seen flashes recently that Roy may in fact be playing with the passion and talent he had last year before going down with an injury.
It’s no surprise that when these guys score, the Sabres win. It is what had been expected of them all season. Better late than never, I suppose. But we can only hope the underachieving duo manage to sustain that high level of play throughout the rest of the season.
The no-brainer of the Sabres’ turnaround has to be their return to good health over the past month or so.
We heard the excuses early in the season. Terry Pegula and Darcy Regier preached how great the team could be if only it were healthy. Subsequently, fans didn’t exactly buy in to the lame duck excuse that injuries were the Sabres’ No. 1 problem. But maybe, just maybe, they were.
Throughout the first half of the season, the Sabres experienced an unprecedented amount of injuries, having gone various stretches without mainstays like Ennis, Miller, Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff, Robyn Regehr, etc., sometimes at with multiple players out all at once. The Sabres became known as the Buffchester Sabricans, renamed for the amount of players the team had skated at one point from the farm system an hour down the I-90.
However, the Sabres percervered and, low and behold, the team’s brass was right. When healthy, the team looked just as good, if not better, than the team that had taken to Europe to begin the season. The offense scored goals (well, sort of), the defense played, well, defense, and Ryan Miller was Ryan Miller again.
It’s no coincidence that the Sabres have been relatively healthy during their stretch run, minus a few nicks and bumps along the way. The health of the team will be paramount to close the season, but it appears as though maybe the Hockey Gods are ready to repay the Sabres for the hardships the team was forced to overcome earlier this season.
5. Darcy Regier
The fifth, final and yes, most important factor to the Sabres’ turnaround this season has been Darcy Regier. Yes, I’ll say it again. Darcy Regier is arguably the biggest reason for the team’s turnaround this season.
Knock him all you want for his offseason moves, but if the Sabres make the playoffs, he’ll be the one looking pretty damn smart. The team had its “thousand mile stare” during the January losing streak and was seemingly doing everything it could to prompt a coaching or GM change. The most overlooked virtue in sports is patience. It’s something not many of those in the profession have, or can afford to have, in today’s unforgiving world. But please, credit Regier for having the necessary patience that so many lack, because it just so happens that he was right.
Not only did Regier not panic into making a deal while the team was reeling in January, he waited all the way up until 2:57 p.m. of the 3:00 p.m. trading deadline on Feb. 27 to make his move. But he made it count.
Regier’s patience paid off, refusing to take nothing less than a first-round draft choice in return for Paul Gaustad, eventually prompting a desperate Predators team to overpay. And just when the patience of Sabres fans wore to an all-time low level after the GM had failed to make the desired and necessary “big slash”, Regier dug down deep and pulled off the blockbuster trade of the day, shipping out the high-potential yet terribly inconsistent Zack Kassian for an even more highly-touted, need-filling center in Cody Hodgson. (Not to mention, the impact the supposed throw-in Alexander Sulzer has made, and the fact Regier is sitting pretty with two first- and two second-round picks in the draft this year, even if the Sabres do miss out on the postseason.)
It was the splash the Sabres needed to put them over the hump, to overcome the doldrums of their poor start, and begin yet another unparraleled quest toward the playoffs. Of course, before last night, Hodgson hadn’t made much of an impact on the score sheet. But he had been the breath of fresh air the team was in dire need of.
After his two assists last night (and Kassian’s continued struggles in Vancouver), if Hodgson continues to score over the final eight games, the Sabres will likely have a date with a No. 1 or 2 seed in the first round of this year’s playoffs, potentially poised to play spoiler and make a run if their red-hot level of play continued. Now matter the outcome, though, Regier has been the big winner since that fateful day in February, and is the sole reason the team is challenging for a playoff spot as we speak. Had Darcy not done something, we’d be talking about June’s entry draft instead of breaking down point scenarios heading into the final few weeks of the season.
Whether the Sabres make the playoffs is yet to be seen, but at the very least they’ve made it fun to watch again, and at this point in the season, after everything we as Sabre fans went through in November, December and January, I’ll take it.
You almost certainly don’t agree with Brandon’s opinion on this matter, so please, let him hear about it in the comment box or be sure to follow him on Twitter @B_Schlag and express your distaste.