The Buffalo Sabres have been counted out since the opening weeks of the season. A brutal start seemed to doom them. After a brief rally, a midseason slump appeared to seal their fate.
Yet with just one week left on the schedule, they have defied the odds and are still alive for a playoff spot.
They might take their last breaths tonight, though.
The Sabres host the New York Rangers, and a regulation loss would eliminate Buffalo from postseason contention. The Sabres have 44 points, four fewer than the eighth-place Rangers (48) and seven fewer than the seventh-place New York Islanders (51).
If the Sabres lose, the highest point total they could accumulate would be 50 – the same number New York would have upon exiting First Niagara Center. Because the Rangers hold the tiebreaker, Buffalo’s slim hopes for a Stanley Cup chance would disappear for good.
“It’s a must-win hockey game for us,” Sabres right wing Brian Flynn said Thursday.
When playoff bubble teams reach this point in the season, they become fans of other organizations. Scoreboard watching increases, and rooting interests are clearly defined.
The Sabres need to wave the foam fingers of Carolina, Washington, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Florida and Montreal for a chance at a playoff spot.
Obviously, the Sabres need a lot of help. The first step will be helping themselves. If they don’t get at least a point against the Rangers, there won’t be a second step.
“We definitely need help,” alternate captain Steve Ott said, “but we need to win our games and let other teams hopefully take care of themselves.”
The Islanders will be nearly impossible to catch for multiple reasons. In addition to needing just one point to close out the Sabres, all of their remaining games are against teams outside of a playoff spot: Winnipeg, Carolina, Philadelphia and Buffalo.
The possible fork in the Isles’ postseason road is every game is away from home.
The Rangers face four teams outside the top eight of the Eastern Conference: Buffalo, Florida, Carolina and New Jersey, which they play twice in their only remaining home games.
Winnipeg visits Buffalo and Montreal, while it welcomes the Islanders and Washington.
“You never want to be banking on other teams to help you out, but that’s the position we’re in now,” Buffalo defenseman Mark Pysyk said after a brief practice in Northtown Center at Amherst. “We’re feeling like we can do it. Guys haven’t given up or anything like that. The message is we still have to win and move on from there.”
The Sabres have been winning more often than not, especially since engaging in what was supposed to be a season-ending fire sale. They are 6-2 in their last eight games, including seven without the departed trio of Jason Pominville, Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold.
“I don’t think anybody really gave us a chance, but we’re right in the race,” center Cody Hodgson said. “We’ve stuck around even though we’ve been written off. In the room, we haven’t written off each other.”
The Sabres, winners of three straight, get another chance to set a season-high winning streak. It’s the fourth time they’ve won three in a row, but they’ve yet to make it to four. If there was ever a time to do it, it’s now.
“We all want a chance at the dance,” Ott said. “That’s something we’ve been committed to from Day One and said that’s what we want to be, a playoff team. It doesn’t matter if you’re a minor-league guy that’s called up or a guy straight out of college. You all want that same goal.”