Odds are the Buffalo Sabres' curve in the 2012-13 NHL season still goes from reeling to at least some dealing by April 3, but amid the early-season chaos and trade-deadline rumors, general manager Darcy Regier's up-and-down team has found a way back into the discussion for a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"We have to climb, and it's going to take a lot of work," Sabres captain Jason Pominville told NHL.com Monday. "But if there is a group that can do it, we'd be it."
Confidence is good and it usually helps, but the Sabres hurt their chances Tuesday with a regulation loss at the Tampa Bay Lightning. Buffalo was 12th in the Eastern Conference, five points out of eighth with 16 games to play, so thinking about the playoffs may seem farfetched with one week to go before the April 3 trade deadline.
However, so much could change in the next week, when the Sabres have eight points up for grabs in games against the Florida Panthers, Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins before Regier would be forced to make any deal.
"I think we're starting to peak when other teams have peaked earlier and are now starting to fall apart. We were able to survive early on when we weren't playing our best, but now I think we're starting to thrive. You're seeing some other teams go through injury problems now where we're getting healthy. Our system is very refined now and I think we're starting to pick up momentum. I really think our team can go on a run of winning nine of 10 or 10 of 11. Watch out, because we've got a very dangerous hockey team. We haven't come close to our best yet."
"It's one of the best [I've been on] for sure. In the year when we won the division title here, that was the other team that I felt was pretty good. But when you've been in the League for a couple of years you learn to appreciate that even more, and I think that's the difference. When you've been on teams that don't have as much success as you want, you really appreciate the success you're having as a team now and you want to keep building on it."-- Minnesota Wild captain Mikko Koivu on his team this season
If the loss to the Lightning turns out to be a minor blip (Buffalo is 4-2-1 in its past seven games), Regier may have re-evaluate his team before pulling the trigger.
"Darcy is going to have to make decisions, think about what he has to do, and it's a tough task because we're making a push," Pominville said before the loss to Tampa Bay. "But those are decisions he is going to have to make. The only thing we can control is trying to work as hard as we can to keep on the right track."
Pominville, Miller, Vanek and Ott each has one more year remaining on his contract. Regehr and Leopold are unrestricted free agents after this season. Stafford has two more years on his deal, and Myers, the most surprising name on the rumor list, is signed for six more seasons.
Pominville said Regier has not asked him to waive his no-movement clause.
"If Darcy has to come up and ask me for something then I'll deal with it, but for now it's just about doing what is best for our team," Pominville said. "I want to be here. I want to help the team. I'm sure the other guys feel the same way. We've had a lot of good years in Buffalo and we want to win here, so hopefully we can get that done."
The question is, how many more games will Regier give them to prove they can do it this season? He said last week that being honest and realistic about his club is the most important part of his job now because it will help guide him through April 3.
"It's still formulating," Regier told NHL.com.
The loss to the Lightning aside, Regier's team has been trying to convince him that a playoff berth is still an honest and realistic goal. It's a tough sell considering just a couple of weeks ago it seemed the Sabres were heading for a guaranteed roster explosion, but a good run could convince Regier it's not impossible after all.
"If this was an 82-game schedule, after 30 games nobody would be talking about all these things, but now that it's a 48-game schedule there is less time and everybody brings it up," Pominville said. "Everyone knows that time is coming, but we have a job to do and our job is to win games. We've been focusing on that."
Rolston not worried about potential changes
Sabres interim coach Ron Rolston could be the guy in Buffalo with the most riding on the last four-plus weeks of the season, considering he's trying to become the full-time coach and winning games is the surest way to job security.
It would be understandable if Rolston was concerned about Regier potentially blowing up his roster over the next week, or at least taking a key player or two away to build for the future but harm Buffalo's playoff chances now. Rolston said that's not at all how he's feeling or thinking.
"I have really tried to keep things pretty focused as one step at a time for what I'm doing," Rolston told NHL.com. "We're just trying to make the team better on a daily basis and we just worry about our next opponent and keep moving forward from there. I was given a great opportunity from the organization to coach the team for the rest of the year and I have to make sure that I'm doing that job."
Update on Olympic participation
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told NHL.com the League is hoping to know by mid-April if NHL players will be going to Sochi, Russia for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Daly and a group of League personnel traveled to Sochi earlier this month for a site visit and several meetings.
Laich's 'nightmare' is over
NHL.com: "Hey Brooks, how are you?"
Laich: "How am I? You know how I am. I'm terrible."
That was one month ago, when Laich was sidelined because of a lingering groin injury that had kept him out since training camp. Miserable isn't a strong enough word to describe how Laich was feeling.
"It was a nightmare," Laich told NHL.com Monday, less than 24 hours after playing in his fourth game of the season.
Laich returned to the lineup March 19 at Pittsburgh and has made an immediate impact with his production, his ice time and his gritty, physical presence on the second line with Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer.
"Soon after I started practicing I had to get into a game, otherwise there would have been 12 fights in practice just because I was intense in practice," Laich said, laughing. "I wanted to make sure when the game came around that it wasn't a feeling-out process for myself, that I didn't take three, four or five games to get into game shape. I didn't have the luxury. So, when I was practicing, I was intense and almost gamelike, and that sort of rubbed some people the wrong way. I'm glad we got back to playing some games."
Wild about the WildMikko Koivu told NHL.com this week he's never felt better about the direction of the franchise than he does right now because of the mix of veterans signed for the future and young players on the rise.
"I think that's fair, and I think other teams are starting to recognize that," said Koivu, who has played all of his 519 NHL games with Minnesota. "You have to earn your respect, and I think we have that now, but at the same time that's when you want to push and you want to get better to prove you can do some damage."
Koivu and the Wild have been doing a lot of that lately. They're one of the hottest teams in the League with six straight wins because the once offensively challenged team has been scoring goals in bunches of late: 27 over a six-game winning streak.
The Wild are averaging 2.68 goals-per-game; last season they averaged a League-low 2.02. They've scored a power-play goal in 11 of the past 14 games (12-for-50) and are 11-3-0 in those games.
Koivu's line, which includes Parise and rookie Charlie Coyle, has combined for eight of the recent 27 goals. The second line of Devin Setoguchi, Matt Cullen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard has scored nine times in the past six games.
"I'm not saying I'm old now, but you realize that the years go fast," Koivu said. "When you have a contract, you look at the future, and I think we're in good shape. You can see the young players getting better each and every day. That's a good sign for us. There are lots of players coming up and we have a good group of core guys now. So, yeah, the future looks good."
Gionta curious about Bergevin's deadline demeanorMarc Bergevin has been one of the quieter executives with the trade deadline approaching, and that's just fine with captain Brian Gionta, who told NHL.com he's interested to see how Bergevin, a first-year GM, will operate with one week to go.
"He'll identify some needs and wants, but it'll be interesting to see how he goes," Gionta said. "I definitely have full faith, but we have a great locker room now, so not much needs to be done as far as that."
If Bergevin dives into the trade waters before the deadline, he could just be looking to fish out a depth forward or defenseman. Injuries to Rene Bourque (concussion), Raphael Diaz (concussion) and Ryan White (lower body) create an opening for that type of player.
However, Montreal recently acquired Jeff Halpern, a veteran, right-handed center, off waivers to replace White for the time being. It wouldn't be shocking if that's Bergevin's only move.
"It's not always a huge deadline move that pays off," Gionta said. "Sometimes it's the little ones."