Surging Sabres in the hunt in crazy playoff race


A Sabres’ resurgence has them right in the mix for the playoffs. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Buffalo Sabres.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, here come the Buffalo Sabres. Ahead of schedule, they’re only two points out of a playoff spot. In winning their fourth game over the last five- a 3-2 home win over the Blues– the Sabres find themselves in the hunt of a wild and crazy race.

With 62 points and 23 games left, the key for Buffalo is to keep winning. They got their latest victory thanks to goal number 20 from sizzling Evander Kane and a Ryan O’Reilly power play tally late in the second period that held up as the winner. Late recall Nick Baptiste also scored from Jack Eichel and Kane as the Sabres used 37 saves from Robin Lehner to close within two of third place in the Atlantic and the second wildcard.

Right now, anything’s possible. With the red hot Panthers continuing to win by posting a 3-2 road win at Los Angeles for their seventh win in eight and fourth straight overall, Florida has reminded us that they are going to be a factor. Combined with the Islanders losing the first of a home-and-home series at the Devils 3-2, it’s the Panthers who are now sitting third in the Atlantic with 64 points. They have gotten healthy with the return of Jonathan Huberdeau. Ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr scored a highlight reel goal the other night in a win at Anaheim. Aleksander Barkov got the winner against the Kings.

There are so many teams bunched up that eight total points separates second wildcard Boston- also with 64 points- from the Red Wings and Hurricanes. You have the Islanders still on the outside looking in with 62. They have yet to be in the wildcard yet. There’s also the Maple Leafs, who were doubled up by the Senators 6-3. Toronto has been inconsistent lately but remain at 63 points with 25 games left.

In what amounted to a huge win, the Devils are only four off the pace with 60 points and 24 games remaining. Thanks to 40 saves from Cory Schneider and goals from Devante Smith-Pelly, Travis Zajac (shorthanded) and improving rookie Pavel Zacha (8th), they held on for a one-goal home win over the Islanders. If they can sweep the series in Brooklyn later, they’re right there.

As for the Sabres, it was hard to take them seriously. At least for a while, it seemed that they wouldn’t make a push. But with the teams in front of them not playing consistent hockey, Buffalo suddenly finds itself very much alive. Dating back to a 4-0 shutout over Ottawa on Feb. 4, they have won six of nine and made up ground.

Kane deserves a lot of credit for turning his season around. Ever since Eichel returned, he’s been a different player. He didn’t score his first goal until Dec. 3. Since that point, he’s scored all 20 of his goals over the last 35 games. During that span, he has tallied 27 points (20-7-27). In nine games this month, Kane has six goals and a helper. He’s 13-8-21 in wins and just 5-3-8 in losses.

Eichel has also been on a serious roll. With an assist yesterday, he now has 17 points over the last 17 games. Most impressively, it hasn’t been about his goal scoring. But rather his playmaking. He’s scored just five times while assisting on 12 goals. In fact, his last six points are all helpers including three in a win at Toronto. He only has one goal in the last 12 games. What happens when the super sophomore with the wicked shot snaps out of it? He’s due.

The Sabres wrap up a tough three games over four days stretch by hosting the Blackhawks. That shouldn’t be easy. But they’ll probably draw Chicago backup Scott Darling due to Corey Crawford starting in their loss to Edmonton. With no games until Feb. 25, does coach Dan Bylsma ride the hot hand in net with Lehner? He’s won his last three starts allowing four goals on 103 shots. It has to be a strong consideration. He has started the last six games.

Anders Nilsson hasn’t played since making 36 saves in a 5-4 come from behind overtime win over the Sharks on Feb. 7. That comeback started the turnaround. Trailing 4-1 to a very good San Jose team that made the Stanley Cup Final last year, the Sabres scored four unanswered including three in succession over a 3:28 span in the third period to force overtime. In it, Kane got the winner 65 seconds in from Eichel with a rocket.

With Sam Reinhart starting to pick it up and Kyle Okposo continuing to be a good fit leading the team in scoring with 39 points (18-21-39), Buffalo is no longer one dimensional. They’ve gotten solid contributions from vets Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson, who each enter today’s game with 12 goals apiece.

Rasmus Ristolainen continues to be a workhorse anchoring the back end. He’s averaging over 27 minutes a night while ranking fourth in team scoring with 35 points including a team-leading 31 assists. He’s getting some help from Jake McCabe, Cody Franson and a now healthy Zach Bogosian.

While it’s true the playoffs are probably unrealistic due to their schedule and having to compete against so many teams who have games at hand, the Sabres are no longer a pushover. They finally must be taken seriously.

Whatever happens the remainder of the season, a young nucleus will get a good experience and learn from it moving forward.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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