With 4:07 to go in game 44 of this shortened season, it was as if the house had won. “Twenty one” had the black and gold faithful roaring with approval. In front of an otherwise empty net, a left leg save by Boston’s Andrew Ference - on his numerical counterpart Drew Stafford no less - helped preserve the Bruins one-goal lead during a sequence of play that went more than seven minutes without a whistle.
But when the whistle finally did blow, something strange happened. Ference’s good fortune had come to an end.
It was he who was going off for delay of game - puck over the glass - with only 48 seconds to play. And in typical sporting fashion, a role reversal, an ironic twist was about to come to pass.
Stafford, pointless in his last nine games and undoubtedly frustrated by his earlier miss, was again patrolling the left point on the power play, something he’s been thrust into in each of the past three games.
And after a rare-for-this-night faceoff win by the Sabres (courtesy of Steve Ott) the puck found its way to Stafford. Four seconds later it was in the back of the net. Cody Hodgson from Vanek and Stafford at 19:33, tying the game up and bringing hope back to the bench. Not to mention some relief to one of Buffalo’s most snakebitten scorers.
Incredibly it was the first time since game one of the season against Philadelphia that Buffalo had scored more than one power play goal in a game.
But Stafford wasn’t done. In case his assist wasn’t noticed, Stafford produced the only goal of the three-round shootout.
The 11th shootout in the head-to-head history of the Sabres and Bruins went the way of the road team, as Buffalo claimed the season series three wins to two, winning both of their visits to the Garden. The result affording us at least one more opportunity to breakdown the schedules remaining for the those in the hunt for eighth in the Eastern Conference, and focus on what the Sabres must do, for the first time this season, if they are to snag the final spot.
As of Thursday morning, the Rangers remained in eighth place with 46 points and six games to go. Based on quality of opponents remaining they have by far the easiest schedule. New York’s six games are all against teams that not currently in a playoff position. Two versus Florida (0-1 this season); a Friday matchup here in Buffalo, where the Rangers were dumped 3-1 March 12; and the Rangers are 2-0 vs. the Hurricanes this season and will visit them next Thursday in their penultimate game. They also have a pair with their arch rivals from across the Hudson, the Devils, who are currently riding a 10-game losing streak, but have managed to split a pair with the Rangers so far.
The Winnipeg Jets also have 46 points, but have five games remaining. Having won four in a row, their homestand continues with games against Carolina (2-1-0 vs. them) and the Islanders (1-1-0 vs. NYI). After that the Jets will be in Buffalo (2-0 vs. Sabres) on Monday, followed by a quick turnaround into D.C. the following night (1-3 vs the Capitals). The Jets will play their season finale next Thursday when they host the struggling Canadiens, but they are 0-2 against Montreal this season.
In all likelihood the Sabres must run the table over their final four games to post 52 points on the season and hope that it’s good enough. This would mean that the Rangers must do no better than 2-3-1 over their final six, while the Jets would have to finish no better than 2-2-1 to leave the door open for Buffalo.
Buffalo of course plays the Rangers on Friday, then will meet the Penguins (1-1-0) in Pittsburgh on Saturday. The Sabres return home for their final two games: Monday vs. Winnipeg, and Friday against the surging New York Islanders.
The Sabres are riding their fourth three-game winning streak of the season. They have yet to win four in a row. When there were 22 games remaining, my belief was that they would need to go 18-4 to make it. They have gone 10-5-3 to date.
But before you consider writing them off - again - consider what we’ve witnessed in this most recent three game surge: a game-winning goal scored off the end boards by Christian Ehrhoff vs. Philadelphia; a clean two-on-one featuring Kevin Porter and Brian Flynn that required the side boards to rescue an errant pass before the puck was put home by Porter vs. Tampa Bay. That goal gave them a three-goal cushion in a game for the just the fourth time this season.
And then, a last-minute puck-over-the-glass penalty by the Bruins that allowed Buffalo to score its second power play goal of the game, against the number one penalty killing unit in the NHL. That oddity followed by a shootout win with Stafford getting the deciding goal.
There’s that “21” reference again. It’s time to play the remaining cards as they are dealt. Four of a kind is the goal, to be part of a season-ending lucky seven, and just maybe a spot in the top eight.