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Once again, Sabres getting hot at the right time

Wednesday, 03.28.2012 / 10:14 AM / Drive to the Playoffs

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Once again, Sabres getting hot at the right time
Buffalo went on a huge run last season to earn a playoff spot, and the team is playing its best hockey again late in the season this year.
WASHINGTON -- Derek Roy says it's about having a winning attitude. Drew Stafford points to the experience and character inside the dressing room. Coach Lindy Ruff credits good health and improved defense.

Check marks all around.

The Sabres, left for dead a little over a month ago, have used the aforementioned elements to resurrect their playoff hopes with five games left in the regular season. After Tuesday's thorough 5-1 defeat of the Capitals at Verizon Center, Buffalo has sole possession of eighth place in the Eastern Conference thanks to a 19-5-5 record since Jan. 24, including 14-2-3 since they were 15th in the East on Feb. 19.

Ryan Miller
Goalie - BUF
RECORD: 30-18-7
GAA: 2.46 | SVP: 0.919
"Nobody cares who scores; nobody cares who gets the accolades," Roy told NHL.com prior to Tuesday's game. "Everybody is just worried about winning hockey games."

Tuesday's win was the latest example of what Roy is talking about.

The Sabres had four different goal scorers and 10 players record at least one point. Ryan Miller, who has won 14 of his last 18 starts, made a season-high 44 saves. Despite getting only one power-play opportunity, Buffalo won the special teams game with Jason Pominville's shorthanded goal. They collapsed on Alex Ovechkin and limited the Capitals' captain to four shots on goal, three of which came from the outside.

"It's a lot different than if you would have talked to me a couple of months ago, but it didn't change overnight," Pominville said following the win Tuesday. "We had to build it, start getting confidence, start playing better hockey. I think we have. Ryan is playing tremendous for us. Our special teams are doing a better job. Everybody is getting on the scoreboard. It's helping our overall game."

The Sabres' run started in late January, but Roy pointed to their three-game road trip after the Feb. 27 trade deadline as the turning point.

They had just dealt Paul Gaustad to Nashville for a first-round pick, a sign that they were a seller at the deadline, but that's not how the Sabres responded on the West Coast.

"We had the experience from last season, when we were last in the League at one point and we were able to play our way into the playoffs. Here we find ourselves in a similar situation where we needed to play our best hockey of the year, almost replicate what we did last year, in order to get into the postseason, and we've put ourselves in a position where we're knocking on the door."
-- Sabres forward Drew Stafford

Miller made 43 saves to beat Anaheim 2-0 on Feb. 29, and then 39 more the following night in San Jose for a 1-0 win. Two days later, the Sabres went to Vancouver, scored five goals, and left Rogers Arena with another win.

"We posted back-to-back shutouts and it wasn't like we were winning 5-0 or 6-0," Roy said, pointing to the wins in Anaheim and San Jose. "Guys were worried about playing defense in front of Ryan, letting him see shots and make saves. It was just guys worrying about winning."

They haven't stopped. The Sabres are 11-2-2 since the trade deadline, when they were 12th in the East, six points out of eighth, with Winnipeg, Washington, Toronto and Tampa Bay ahead of them.

"You could look at some of the things like we're healthy now, but more importantly it's the character in here, in this group," Stafford told NHL.com. "We've been through this before."

He's right.

The Sabres were in this same position last season, and they went 16-4-4 down the stretch to finish seventh in the East.

"We had the experience from last season, when we were last in the League at one point and we were able to play our way into the playoffs," Stafford said. "Here we find ourselves in a similar situation where we needed to play our best hockey of the year, almost replicate what we did last year, in order to get into the postseason, and we've put ourselves in a position where we're knocking on the door.

"Each game is an opportunity to get points, and we're trying to empty the tank in each game."

They've got five left, starting Friday at home against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Buffalo also gets to play Toronto twice before closing the season with games at Philadelphia and Boston.

2011-2012 Standings

Eastern Conference
GP
P
ROW

7
77
88
34
8
77
86
31
9
77
84
36
ROW = total number of regulation plus overtime wins. For tie-breaking purposes, wins obtained in a shootout are not counted. For full standings tiebreakers, click here.
03/28/12 10:14 AM
"You know you don't want to be sitting there in the first week of April and your season is over," Stafford said. "That's the worst feeling in the world."

The Sabres refuse to believe that can happen to them.

They've got Miller, who has a 0.75 goals-against average and .977 save percentage in his last four starts.

They've got an improved power play, which is 6-for-19 in the last six games.

They've also been relatively healthy of late, but it's possible Christian Ehrhoff could be done for the regular season with a left leg injury he suffered Tuesday. Nathan Gerbe, Matt Ellis and Jochen Hecht also are out, and it wasn't long ago that the Sabres were one big MASH unit without enough tables in the trainer's room.

They've lost 308 man-games to injury this season, by far the most in team history since they began tracking the stat in 1998-99. Only Pominville and backup goalie Jhonas Enroth have dressed for every game.

"We went through a really tough stretch of injuries where you've got upwards of eight guys out of the lineup at one time, and our back end was a big part of it," said Ruff, referring to the stretch in late November and early December when Miller, Tyler Myers, Jordan Leopold and Mike Weber were injured. "We didn't play well in our own end, and a lot of it starts there. You're playing catch-up hockey.

"But when we got healthy we started playing better. Our goaltender won us a few games and then we started playing better in front of him."

They've shown no kinks to suggest anything will change in the next five games.

"I knew if we got organized we'd play better hockey," Miller said. "I guess you don't see yourself going on a run like this. You try to build back and get as close as you can. We've got ourselves in position where we can win games and control our own destiny. That's a good feeling, but the way we see it we have to win every game on the way out to ensure that we're there (in the playoffs)."

Quote of the Day

There was a lot of talk off the ice. From a player's standpoint, that's not the talk in the room. GMs make decisions, coaches make decisions, but as a team you have to come together and be ready to go, and we are.

— San Jose Sharks forward Tommy Wingels on his team's approach entering training camp