With the emotional shootout victory last night in Boston, the Buffalo Sabres moved within two points of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, leading their fans to ask a familiar question: Can they sneak into the playoffs?
Two seasons ago, that answer was yes, and the Sabres even ended up in seventh place before losing their first-round series to the Philadelphia Flyers in seven games.
Last season they were unable to get over the hump after a torrid February and March, leaving them on the outside looking in.
Which version of the story will it be this season?
While two points are certainly able to be made up over four games, there are two major non-personnel hurdles the Sabres need to get over before they can find themselves in the postseason.
First, the Sabres have the most games in the Eastern Conference, as of this morning, at 44. The New York Rangers, who currently sit in eighth place, have played 42 games, and the Winnipeg Jets, currently in ninth place, have played 43 games. Both teams play tonight, with the Rangers playing the last place Florida Panthers and the Jets playing the struggling Carolina Hurricanes. Assuming the Rangers or Jets win, the Sabres are now four points behind, with the Rangers potentially able to pad that to six points when they even up their games played.
One of those games for the Rangers is against the Sabres on Friday in Buffalo. If the Rangers win tonight against the Panthers and beat the Sabres on Friday, the Sabres are eliminated.
They would be out due to their second hurdle: Regulation and overtime wins (ROW).
The Sabres have 13 ROW, which are now the first tiebreaker for the playoffs. Only Florida (10) has fewer than the Sabres, and the New Jersey Devils are tied with Buffalo at 13.
This is the worst possible situation for any potential playoff team, because it means the Sabres need to add one point to any total they need to make the playoffs. So while the math seemingly shows two points right now, because the Rangers (17) and the Jets (20) have an insurmountable lead in ROW, the Sabres are effectively three points out today.
That means a win by the Rangers or Jets tonight puts the Sabres effectively five points out of the playoffs and likely on the outside looking in for the second year in a row.
So, while the Sabres have played well the past month, they may not have played well enough to get themselves into the playoffs.
Given the losses of Robyn Regehr, Jordan Leopold and Jason Pominville to trades and Tyler Myers, Ville Leino and Thomas Vanek to injuries, this is not unexpected, but the run has been nice nonetheless. This run, with those losses, has certainly given credence to the argument that Ron Rolston deserves the interim tag to be removed, but that may depend on the fate of Darcy Regier, which postpones that another debate for another day.
Regardless, the Sabres have decided to make it interesting for the third year in a row. The only question that remains is whether or not it was worth it for the long run.