Watching the Buffalo Sabres this year has been similar to riding a thrill ride in an amusement park: a white-knuckled experience that sometimes makes you laugh, other times makes you cry, and occasionally makes you feel as if you are going to throw up all over your shoes.
Last night’s overtime victory over the Montreal Canadiens was a perfect example, and I have news for all of you fans of the blue and gold: for better or worse, the remaining 18 games of the 2012-2013 Sabres’ season is going to be much, much more of the same.
For starters, that victory, and the two points that accompanied it, allowed the Sabres to move past the Washington Capitals and into 13th place in the Eastern Conference. Hold your mock applause – I’m not celebrating this! Just stating the facts. Another fact: the Sabres sit a mere six points behind the New York Rangers for the 8th and final playoff spot. Just close enough to keep things interesting, even though there is no reason to believe the playoffs will be coming to Buffalo this spring.
Playoffs-bound or not, however, the Sabres still have a wildly-entertaining slate of games remaining on their schedule, thanks to the fact that the shortened NHL season resulted in each team having an entirely intra-conference schedule. As long as the Sabres remain within striking distance, they will have some fight left in them, and since every team they play from here on out will either be playing to secure home-ice advantage, or to claw their own way into the playoff mix, you can bet your bottom dollar that there are no throw-away games left on the schedule (with the possible exception of the one remaining game the Sabres have against the Florida Panthers).
Let’s look at which teams the Sabres will face in their final stretch of games:
Toronto Maple Leafs: Buffalo finishes its season series against the Leafs tomorrow night in Buffalo, hoping to even the series at two wins apiece. Winning this game is critical for the Leafs, who have fallen back to fourth in the Northeast Division, and a loss to Buffalo would put them only four points ahead of the last-place Sabres.
Montreal Canadiens: The Sabres still have two more against this team, one on the road and one at home. With the Canadiens currently on top of the Northeast Division, you know they will be fighting hard every game in order to give themselves home-ice in at least one playoff round.
Tampa Bay Lightning: One of the four teams currently in between the Sabres and the playoffs, these teams will play two more times this year. With each team desperately needing points in order to make up ground, you better believe these games will be hotly-contested.
Florida Panthers: This is one of those trap games that the Sabres need to be wary of if they want to keep their postseason hopes alive. With all of these other “high stakes” games coming up, it would be easy for the Sabres to overlook a Panthers team that is last in the Eastern Conference, and who own the worst goal differential in all of hockey with a -36. Losing to this team would be both embarrassing and crippling.
Washington Capitals: The Sabres meet the Capitals only once more, in Buffalo on March 30th (and I will be there covering the action!). I hope to see an angry Sabres team out for revenge in this one, as the otherwise struggling Capitals made the Sabres look pretty bad when the teams last met.
Boston Bruins: Despite the fact that these teams have already played three times, there are still two grudge matches left for these two divisional adversaries. Buffalo has already beaten Boston twice, a fact which I am sure is not lost on the Bruins. I can only imagine how much satisfaction the Bruins would take in knowing they nailed the final coffin in the Sabres’ dying playoff chances, but I expect the Sabres to be up for these two games, as they usually are.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Ouch. Two more games left against these guys, possibly the scariest team in all of the NHL today? That’s bad news, especially if the Sabres were able to pull off a minor miracle and become a real threat to make the playoffs. The good news is that the Sabres feel they should have beaten the Penguins the first time they met, and will have some added motivation to try and steal one, if not two, from the best team in the Eastern Conference.
Ottawa Senators: Having already beaten the Sabres three times this year, Ottawa gets to come into Buffalo and try to complete the regular season sweep. That alone should be incentive for the Sabres to come out swinging. Hopefully, the Sabres are still within a handful of points of the playoffs by this time, as well.
New Jersey Devils: The Sabres and Devils have already played two chippy contests, both of which were decided in a shootout. I would say this third and final meeting will be another tight one, and with New Jersey currently on the outside of the playoff picture, looking in, it’s just another example of why the shortened season is providing must-see hockey.
Winnipeg Jets: Winninpeg has to be the most surprising team of the second half of this season so far, having gone from being 12th in
the Eastern Conference on February 24th to 3rd in the East today! Granted, they are third because they currently lead the weak Southeastern Division, but hey! Unlike Buffalo, they have made up ground, and quickly. Since Carolina is nipping at Winnipeg’s heels for the Southeastern Division crown, Winnipeg should be treating every game as if it is their last, which will make them almost as desperate as the Sabres when these two teams meet.
Philadelphia Flyers: Another desperate team, especially since this was a team that expected to contend for the Stanley Cup this year. Not making the playoffs really isn’t an option for a team with such high expectations, and such a rich history, so the final game between these two teams could be downright ugly, especially if the Flyers believe their season to be essentially over.
New York Rangers: The Rangers are in the same boat as the Flyers: lots of history, extremely high expectations for this season, and a lot riding on every game they have left. And unlike the Flyers, the Rangers currently own a playoff spot, which I’m guessing they would like to keep.
New York Islanders: Unlike the other team from New York, no one expected the Islanders to be in the playoff hunt this year, and by the time they play the Sabres, in Buffalo, both teams may be playing for pride, as it will be the last game of the regular season for each team. I’ll be in Buffalo covering this game, as well, so I hope there is something on the line besides a spot in the NHL draft, but something tells me neither one of these teams will have much to gain by the time they finally meet again.
So there it is: the rest of the Sabres’ season, in a nutshell! Fans of the boys from Buffalo might be disappointed with how the Sabres are playing, but one thing no fan of hockey can complain about is the shortened season we got as a result of the lockout. Every single game being played in the Eastern Conference right now has playoff implications, and we’re going to be witness to plenty of changes in the playoff picture as teams leapfrog over one another in a wild finish. Even if the Sabres don’t make the playoffs, they could certainly damage some other teams’ hopes in the next few weeks, so brace yourself for all the laughs, tears, and vomit-inducing hockey you could ever want!!!!