What a difference a few wins can make.
The Buffalo Sabres won their second straight overtime game last night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, with Steve Ott sealing it with a nifty backhand in the sixth round of the shootout. With that win the Sabres are now just four points out of the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference.
Four points doesn’t seem like much, and it is not, but there are some other factors to consider when looking at the standings.
The Sabres have played one more game than the three teams that sit just a single point behind them, which are the Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers. Simply, a win by any or all of those teams move the Sabres down in the standings. The Sabres also have played one more game than the New York Rangers who sit in ninth place with 32 points, trailing the Carolina Hurricanes due to their three fewer regulation and overtime wins. Keep that particular tiebreaker in mind as we move forward.
The Sabres go on a Southeast Division stretch after their second matchup with the Montreal Canadiens in a week on Saturday. As of this afternoon, all three of their upcoming Southeast Division opponents – Florida Panthers, Washington and Tampa Bay – are behind them in the standings. It’s safe to say all three are going to be hungry for two points.
Looking beyond the upcoming Southeast stretch, starting with the Boston Bruins on March 31, the Sabres will have 13 games remaining. Of those 13 games, 10 will be against current playoff teams, including two against Boston, two against the Pittsburgh Penguins and two against the Winnipeg Jets, or the current leaders of each Eastern Conference division.
A realistic fan looks at the upcoming schedule and comes to the conclusion that the Sabres need to come away from the next four games with the better part of eight points to even have a prayer of making the playoffs. If they do not, they’ll fall behind at least Philly, Washington and Tampa Bay and will be likely looking at being six to eight points out with 13 tough games left.
What’s even more important than wins? Not winning in a shootout.
Regulation and overtime wins – ROW in the standings grid – are essentially the first tiebreaker at the end of the season, with number of games played not being an issue when all games are played. Right now, the Sabres are tied for last in the Eastern Conference (and NHL) with eight. That’s four fewer than the Rangers who have 12 and seven fewer than the Hurricanes who have 15.
Odds are, the Sabres will not be making up much ground in that category given that a third of their wins are in a shootout, which means that any number of points they need to get into the playoffs needs to be upped by one. So, while they may be four points out now, they need five to have a spot in the postseason.
That makes this upcoming stretch against the purported “weaker” teams in the East and Montreal all the more important. If they come out with less than four points, their uphill battle just got steeper. If they do pick up six or seven points, but are winning in shootouts, they may have done well in the points column, but they have not helped themselves in a tie-breaking sense.
A lot will be determined in the next week, but if the Sabres struggle in their next four games, it seems unlikely that they will be able to make any sort of run toward the playoffs.