general manager Darcy Regier
, appearing as a guest on Thursday's "NHL Hour With Commissioner Gary Bettman," was asked if he was surprised at his team's ability to put together its current 14-2-4 stretch given its struggles with injuries and inconsistency for most of the season.
"Not totally, we did a little bit of it last year, but … yeah, I am, because you don't think you can do it two years in a row," Regier said, referring to the Sabres' 16-4-4 finish last season that allowed them to rise from outside the top eight in the Eastern Conference to a seventh seed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
What the Sabres are bidding to accomplish over the next 10 days would be even more significant, however -- they were 10 points out of a playoff spot and occupying the East basement as recently as Feb. 17 but enter Thursday holding down the No. 8 seed. If they're still above the cutoff line after the final regular-season games on April 7, it will mark the latest point in a season a team has rallied from a double-digit deficit in the standings to make the postseason.
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"I think the biggest thing is we got healthy," Regier said. "It probably starts with the goaltending, with Ryan Miller
. I think we learned some things while we were injured as well. We had some young guys that played some games for us that probably would not have otherwise have gotten into games. They performed well and they continue to perform well. We've gotten a lot of energy from them, and the rest of the guys are doing their jobs."
The Sabres' resurgence can certainly be traced to the comeback second half by Miller, who spent the early months getting dinged up, watching his goals-against average inflate and dealing with persistent trade rumors. While it might be too late for the 2010 Vezina Trophy winner to lift his name back into the discussion for this year's award, it's undeniable he's been at the top of his game during a 14-1-4 stretch that dates to Feb. 17, when Buffalo began its push following an overtime loss to Montreal.
"He's back," Regier said simply. "He started the season off very well, was injured in November. Even though he came back and played I didn't think he was quite right, back to his normal form. Really I think it started with a West Coast trip (Feb. 29-March 3), he had the back-to-back shutouts on the West Coast and was really locked in and has really carried that over since then."
Regier described a Jan. 21 loss in St. Louis, the Sabres' ninth straight on the road, as the low point of the season.
"You're just waiting for a time in which you're going to get out of that hole, and the hole just keeps getting deeper," he said. "And people are going by you, and you recognize at that point that you're becoming very close to being out of it. And you run the numbers and you know what you have to do as a team and an organization, and you come pretty close to being despondent.
"Where we are now, it's cautious optimism. We are in a position to control our own destiny, but even with five games left and the margin for error and the competitiveness of the League and the competitiveness of our conference, you can't even for a moment take anything for granted. So you're respectfully grateful for where you are, recognizing you're not out of the woods yet.
Even still, with a home game against Pittsburgh coming up Friday followed by a home-and-home against Toronto and road games in Philadelphia and Boston to close out the regular season, the Sabres' mentality is to see if they might even improve their seeding rather than worry about the Capitals' pursuit of them in eighth.
"I think the key is you have to keep looking up. Don't look down," Regier said. "What that means for us is, well, there's Ottawa two points in front of us, we've played even games, let's see if we can chase Ottawa in these remaining games. … To look down and try to hold on to something is probably not the right mindset to take."
The 54-year-old Regier came to Buffalo in 1997 after serving as an assistant GM and interim GM with the New York Islanders
, where his career as an executive was greatly influenced by such greats of the game as Bill Torrey, Al Arbour
and Jim Devellano.
"Wonderful people, all of them," he said. "I wouldn't be here without those gentlemen, and the other part of it is, the idea of trying to work together as a general manager and coach was easy for me because I saw Bill and Al work together, and it worked very well for them. I'd love to be able to get anywhere close to that success rate they had in their working relationship."
Regier has carved out a niche of his own in Buffalo along with coach Lindy Ruff
-- they form the longest current tenure of any GM and coach in the League.
"The coaching relationship, I think we've built on it," Regier said. "We've had an opportunity with all the time we spend together to, I think, in a respectful way challenge each other to be better, recognize that if we work together we can hopefully do more than the traditional relationship, which is the general manager is the boss, the coach has to coach and the strong lines of division. He understands a lot of what I do, I understand a lot of what he does, and we try to collaborate and work together and do things that way. So far we've been fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to continue it."