As the midway point of the season came and went, the Buffalo Sabres were sitting comfortably atop the Northeast Division. Boston was the closest team team, but still trailed Buffalo by 12 points. Now, the Sabres have hit the biggest road bump of the season.
The west coast trip was just the beginning of the Sabres recent woes. The team has gone 2-8-1 in its last 11 games and find themselves clinging to a one point division lead. Ottawa has gone on a tear, winning its last 11 of 12.
Eight of the last 11 games have been decided by just one goal. The Sabres defeated New Jersey and Boston, perhaps snapping out of the losing skid. They have now lost four in a row, with just a couple of games to go before the Olympic break.
Ryan Miller's numbers have slowly began to drop. He is no longer in first place in goals against average or save percentage. Miller still has the Olympics to worry about, then playoffs are not far away when he returns.
Buffalo will play 16 games in 31 days for the month of March, a big test for the entire team. To open the month, the Sabres will face Pittsburgh, Washington, and Philadelphia in just four nights.
Maybe this two week break is exactly what the Sabres need, and at a perfect time too. Perhaps the team could use some time off and can hopefully bounce back in March. Buffalo still only trails the Devils for 2nd place in the conference, as New Jersey has been slumping as of late as well.
Where is Thomas Vanek?
The highest paid player on the team is 4th in points. Many fans are waiting for him to catch fire and go on a tear, but when? Will he even show up at all? With the exception of Miller, the Sabres do not have a superstar on the team.
When Chris Drury and Daniel Briere left, Vanek was considered the superstar. Now, after his lack of scoring and Miller's tremendous season, the goaltender is the team's star.
The Sabres are using balanced scoring on the offensive side. They are rolling four lines every game, forcing the opponent to have to stop the whole team, not just the top two lines. Buffalo has eight players with at least 20 points this season. The biggest help thus far has been the play from Tim Connolly, who has surpassed 50 points.
Are they contenders?
Every team has a slump, and the Sabres are in one right now. In Buffalo, fans are losing faith as the Sabres lose games to some of the worst teams in the league. What happens when they end the slump?
If and when the Sabres do clinch a playoff spot, how far will they be able to go? This is where winning the division becomes so much more important. If the Sabres can finish third or better, they will play one of the mediocre teams that are fighting for the final spots.
Now, if Buffalo falls to 4th or 5th in the conference, the matchup becomes much more difficult. That could have the Sabres playing New Jersey, Pittsburgh, or even Ottawa, in the first round. I'm not saying that the Sabres cannot win against these teams. However, it would be much more beneficial to play Montreal or Tampa Bay for the first round.
Can you picture the Sabres taking on Washington or New Jersey in a seven game series? I believe the Sabres, at the very best, can make it to the Conference Finals. They have been a solid team all year long. Buffalo has played poorly the past ten games or so, but I believe they can rebound and win the Northeast Division.
What do you think? Can the Sabres maintain the division lead? How far will they go in the playoffs?
Kevin "Slump Buster" Freiheit