|This is how things looked the last time Buffalo played at Honda Center (January 19, 2010). They've since changed logos, getting rid of the Buffalo that some thought looked like a yellow slug. |
You won't find too many regions in the United States with less in common than Buffalo, NY and Orange County, CA, but their hockey teams have followed a very similar path.
Both finished last year's regular season hot (the Sabres winning four straight, the Ducks winning three in a row) to jump into the playoffs, only to fall in the first round. Both had high hopes coming into this campaign, only to dig themselves pretty big holes through the first three months. And both have come on strong as of late to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Buffalo's turnaround is not quite as drastic as what the Ducks have done (but who's is?): a 17-5-4 record since January 1 that is tied for best in the NHL. That has them within six points of a playoff spot after they were once 20 back. The Sabres have points in five straight games (3-0-2) and are within seven points of the eighth spot in the East.
Both teams suffered setbacks to that hopeful climb in the standings in their last games, the Ducks losing in Colorado on Monday night and the Sabres falling in overtime to the Rangers in New York last Saturday. The Sabres, like the Ducks earlier this season, have struggled on the road, enduring a 12-game losing streak that mercifully was snapped January 24. And like Anaheim a couple weeks ago, they're currently facing a road challenge that could make or break their season: a stretch of seven games away from home in their next eight.
But despite their similarities, these are two teams that don't see each other all that much. Buffalo hasn't been here since January 19, 2010, and although the two have faced each other this season, it was under very different circumstances. That was in the opening game of the season, in Helsinki, a 4-1 loss for the Ducks that was their only defeat in the first five games.
And unlike the Ducks, Buffalo was quite active just before the trade deadline, dealing big center Paul Gaustad and a fourth-round pick to Nashville for a first-round pick and sending top prospect Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani to the Vancouver Canucks for rookie forward Cody Hodgson (who will make his Sabres debut tonight) and Alexander Sulzer.
Ryan Miller will be in net tonight for Buffalo while Jonas Hiller
will make his 23rd straight start for Anaheim. (Another thing these two teams have in common: standout goalies who played great in the '10 Olympics -- Miller for the U.S. and Hiller for Switzerland.)
The Ducks did not practice yesterday after getting in late following that loss in Colorado and facing a stretch of four games in six nights starting this evening. With a win tonight, they would pull into 12th place in the West and could get as close as four points to the eighth spot, depending on what the Stars do tonight at home vs. Pittsburgh (4:30 p.m. Pacific)
Bruce Boudreau was asked by a Buffalo reporter this morning if the Ducks still believe they can make the playoffs even though, as he put it, they are still "a ways back" in the standings.
"You say that and I think you're wrong," Boudreau said. "I don't think we're far back at all. If I don't think we're far back, then I'm sure the rest of the guys don't. No matter who's in front of us, it still depends on us. If we do what we're supposed to do, eventually Colorado and Dallas and Phoenix and those teams are going to lose. They can't go 20-0.
"Until our last breath, until we're eliminated, this group is going to believe they can do it. We've come from 20 points back already, so there's no sense in stopping now. "