The Sabres have two victories over the Bruins in three meetings this year, proving that Buffalo can beat the NHL’s best teams on a given night. Boston is deep, balanced, talented and tough and, in my book, the strongest team in the Eastern Conference no matter what the standings showed.
For whatever reason, whether Milan Lucic raises their desperation level or they flip the “ON” switch when playing their superior division rival, the Sabres’ best performances have come against the best. Ryan Miller has a 24-7-7 career record against Boston. The Sabres are the only team to beat Boston in regulation once, let alone twice, this season.
It doesn’t mean much until the Sabres validate their performance against the Bruins with the same intensity and intelligence against other teams. Sid and the Kids roll into town today for a matinee at First Niagara Center. The Penguins are expected to be another stiff test for the Sabres in a short season filled with them.
The tough hike up the standings became infinitely more difficult with a terrible start that included a 1-6-1 stretch. The eighth-place Rangers were on pace for 55 points. If that’s the magic number for the final playoff spot, and it will be in that neighborhood, the 6-8-1 Sabres need 44 points in their final 33 games to have a sniff.
It means finishing with a 19-10-4 record, or the equivalent. It shouldn’t be a tall order for a team worthy of making the playoffs, but it leaves little room for error between now and the season finale April 26. Another 6-8-1 stretch would likely end their season. And with one-third of the season gone after today, the clock is ticking.
Buffalo cannot afford another slump.
The Sabres had a 31-16-11 record against Western Conference teams the previous three years, which contributed to them overcoming slow starts and making the playoffs in two of them. The biggest reason they finished ninth last season, and not worse, was their 11-6-1 record against the other conference.
It’s a tougher climb this year with teams playing only within the conference, especially when several teams are ahead. It becomes even more difficult when other teams have played fewer games. Only Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia will have played 16 games after today. Several others will have two games in hand.
On Thursday, when all the tiebreakers were added up, the Sabres dropped from 12th to last while sitting on the couch. The deeper a team falls, the more teams ahead of them will play one another. With two points built into matchups not involving the Sabres, the winner is guaranteed to move farther ahead.
Buffalo moved from 15th to 11th place with the win Friday over Boston, but it was hardly grounds for celebration. Toronto and Ottawa had the sixth and seventh spots in the conference. Both were three points ahead of Buffalo. Their matchup Saturday ensured one of them pulling five points ahead.
Montreal was playing Philadelphia. Do you root for the Canadiens to pull six points ahead or the Flyers to move two points ahead and push Buffalo to 12th or worse? Similar dilemmas emerged with Tampa Bay playing Florida and New Jersey playing the New York Islanders. Every game that reaches overtime makes matters worse.
Anyone can examine the numbers and break down schedules from dozens of angles. Save yourself a splitting headache. The Sabres need to stack victories before another season gets away from them. Their fate could be determined in the next 10 games even though 33 contests remain on the schedule.
Buffalo plays Winnipeg, Toronto and the Islanders this week and Tampa Bay and Florida next week. March begins with New Jersey, the Rangers, Carolina and New Jersey again.
If they win six or more of their next 10 games, the postseason will remain within reach. If they win five or fewer at the most critical point of the season, against a handful of teams they need to beat, they don’t deserve to make the playoffs.
JVR not bitter at Philly
If you didn’t already appreciate former Sabres killer James van Riemsdyk as a player, you may respect him more as a classy person after he blew past Luke Schenn and scored for the Maple Leafs last week against the Flyers.
JVR and Schenn were traded for one another with the Leafs looking for size and scoring up front and the Flyers needing help on defense. The swap allowed Schenn to play with his brother, talented forward Brayden Schenn. Van Riemsdyk’s two brothers, Trevor and Brendan, play at the University of New Hampshire.
“Luke Schenn’s a great player and I’m happy for him and Brayden that they get to play together,” van Riemsdyk said. “Hopefully, that kind of karma follows around me and my brothers where we get to play together.
“I’m happy that those guys get a chance to play together. I think both of them are probably the prototypical Philadelphia Flyers with how they play. With the toughness and physicality and they’re obviously great players. I’m sure they’re going to have great careers in Philadelphia.”
Howson firing was expected
The timing for the change was strange, but nobody should have been surprised when John Davidson fired GM Scott Howson last week. The move had been expected since Davidson took over as president of hockey operations in Columbus.
Davidson hired Jarmo Kekalainen to take over the managerial duties with the idea the Blue Jackets can rebuild as the Blues did. Kekalainen, who becomes the first European to become a GM, was a respected scout who contributed to the turnaround in St. Louis. Hiring a new coach in Ken Hitchcock also helped.
“I want guys to understand that this is not a status quo organization,” Davidson said. “We have to get better. That’s not just a message to the players, but everybody. We’re in the business of winning. So are 29 other teams. We have to get better because we haven’t won enough. History shows that.”
Did he say “status quo?” Interesting.
Tlusty’s surprise punch
Enigmatic winger Jiri Tlusty has found a home on the Hurricanes’ top line, giving them scoring punch from an unexpected source. He had five goals and nine points in his first 13 games while playing mostly with Eric Staal and Washington import Alexander Semin.
Tlusty had career highs of 17 goals and 36 points in 79 games last season and could surpass both despite playing the short season. He was on pace for 18 goals and 33 points over 48 games going into the weekend. He played on a line with boyhood idol Jaromir Jagr and close friend Tomas Plekanic in the Czech Republic during the lockout.
“It’s been unreal,” Tlusty said. “Jagr was my hero. To play with him for my hometown team, well, that was amazing. ... Now I’m here playing with Eric again. We played on the same line toward the end of last year. Now, Semin is on the line too. It’s been great.”
Staal had eight goals and 17 points during an 11-game scoring streak going into the weekend. Semin, criticized for being lazy and uninterested in defense in Washington, had three goals and 10 points and was plus-11 in his first 13 games in Carolina.
Kennedy returns, scores
The Sharks were desperate for offense after scoring 29 goals in their first seven games and eight in the seven games that followed. They didn’t have an even-strength goal in more than 261 minutes before South Buffalo native Tim Kennedy scored in a 4-1 loss to childhood friend Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks.
Kennedy was summoned from AHL Worcester, where he had a team-high 13 goals, 37 points and plus-8 rating in 37 games. The goal against Chicago was his first in the NHL since Oct. 22, 2011, when he was with Florida. He now has one more goal in two games with the Sharks this season than Jochen Hecht has in 15 games with the Sabres.
San Jose rattled off seven straight victories to start the season but is 0-4-3 in February.
Blues’ Elliott struggling
Brian Elliott led the NHL with a 1.56 goals-against average and .940 save percentage while pushing Jaroslav Halak for playing time. So what happened when Elliott was handed the top job with Halak sidelined with an injury? He flopped.
Elliott allowed four goals or more in four straight games going into the weekend and 20 overall on 105 shots over five games. He was 41st with a 3.57 GAA and 43rd with a .849 save percentage. The Blues were 0-4-1 over that stretch.
“His responsibility is to work through this,” Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong said. “It’s pro sports. I mean, you have to work through these things.”
Flames GM Jay Feaster on whether they were planning for life after Miikka Kiprusoff, who was sidelined with a knee injury: “Conspiracy theorists are just awesome. The Oliver Stones of the world are just wonderful. I wish I was that bright, that I had all that time to sit around and conspire and think. Obviously, we all recognize where Kipper is in his career. But it isn’t a matter of standing around, saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if Kipper got hurt for three weeks? Then we could test out what life would be without him.’”
Around the boards
• Popular veteran winger Ryan Smyth was a healthy scratch against Dallas last week, a first for him since the 1999 playoffs. Smyth is still a gamer at age 37, but his legs are showing signs of wear. “There’s no room for feelings in a season like this,” Oilers coach Ralph Krueger said. “Whether I’m popular or not, isn’t the driving force.”
• P.K. Subban had two goals and two assists on the power play in the first seven games after his contract dispute. The bad news is that Montreal was just 5 for 39 in that situation with him after going 9 for 33 with Raphael Diaz manning the point. Diaz had eight points before Subban returned, one point in the seven games afterward.
• Jets defenseman Zach Bogosian played 25 minutes in his season debut Friday. Because he had offseason wrist surgery, he received his $3 million salary during the lockout. He should be in the lineup Tuesday in Buffalo, one of his favorite stops. His godfather is former West Seneca West and Syracuse football star Dennis Hartman.