If the season ended today, the greatest fear of any Buffalo Sabres fan holds true: the Sabres would be out of the playoffs. They currently sit in third place in the Northeast Division and ninth place in the Eastern Conference, five points behind the Atlanta Thrashers for eighth. Obviously, this is a problem that isn't going to fix itself.
So, in order to make the playoffs, what needs to happen?
First of all, Ryan Miller needs to regain his Vezina-winner status for the Sabres to have any kind of success. After a slow start and a groin injury, Miller is showing signs of last year's form.
In the past three games, he has allowed three goals and stopped 84 of 87 shots. Before yesterday's game against the Sharks, he has climbed into the top 10 in both GAA and Save percentage (seventh in both categories).
Sabres commentator Mike Robitaille made a very insightful comment when Miller came back from his groin injury a few weeks ago: as a whole, the Sabres simply play better when Miller is in net. The team plays more confidently knowing that if they make a mistake or costly turnover, a goal is not imminent, allowing more room for error.
Miller can take the pressure off of players like Tyler Myers who is experiencing the infamous "sophomore slump." In Miller's first shutout of the season against Columbus last week, Myers played his best game of the year. Although he did not register a point, he looked calm and collected, collecting a whopping 27:00 of ice time, telling how much Lindy Ruff liked his play that night.
In the past three games, Myers has picked up an assist against Boston and is plus-7, averaging around 24:00 a night. His play of late is a sign of another thing that needs to happen for the Sabres in order for them to keep winning: better defense.
Where will the Sabres finish the season?
Jordan Leopold has been outstanding, and may be perhaps the best offseason signing in the league. He leads all NHL defensemen in goals scored since April of last season. Steve Montador is an impressive plus-16 (second in the league in that department) and is playing with heart and passion (something the Sabres seem to lack, but that will be seen to later).
Brian Speers' boy Andrej "Reggie" Sekera has been putting up solid play lately, but nothing worth noting. To contrast Leopold's singing, Shaone Morrison has been a huge disappointment, averaging roughly 15:00 a night, collecting only two assists in 21 games while accumulating a minus-10 rating. He needs to play better to create a formidable Sabres defense that they sorely need.
Mike Weber has done a mediocre job (despite the horrid giveaway for Nathan Horton's tying goal Tuesday) as a fill in for the frequently scratched captain, the notorious Craig Rivet, which leads us to our next topic: leadership.
It may be fair to say that Craig Rivet is the worst captain in the NHL. He is consistently scratched from the lineup, and when he plays, he rarely plays over 15:00 a night.
I was listening to talk radio WGR 550 last year around Februrary and some guy called in after a game saying how "Lindy, as well as our defense is playing, should scratch Rivet more often, but unfortunately, you can't bench your captain."
Well sadly, it's come to that for the Sabres. Rivet cannot offer enough leadership to the team to make up for his poor play. Nothing against the guy, but he should take a page out of his coach's book. Lindy Ruff was the captain for the Sabres in the late '80s and was forced to the press box frequently as a result of poor play.
Lindy, like the great leader he was, resigned his captaincy and moved on with a trade to the New York Rangers. With a captain like Rivet, the Sabres don't have a chance. Whether it's a trade or someone stepping up (see: Roy, Derek) in the locker room, something needs to happen.
Over the past 4 games (the Sabres are 3-1), the offense has produced 13 goals, averaging 3.25 a game. This is an improvement upon their seasonal average of 2.5 a game. While the 3.25 average would put the Sabres in the top 5 of the league in that category, fans cannot expect this trend to continue. All the Sabres need to do is score consistently.
With strong defense and a balanced scoring attack that shows up almost every night, they should be fine. Thomas Vanek has been playing very well of late, collecting nine points in his last seven games.
Derek Roy has slowed down his early season output, but is still leading the team in points. The last time that he scored a goal was against Washington on Nov. 17. That needs to change. The usual scoring suspects need to start producing as well. Jason Pomminville has three goals and eight points in 17 games since returning from his concussion.
The offense doesn't need to put up records, but maintain a steady pace. Scoring five against Columbus, zero against Ottawa, two against Boston, and then six (five minus the EN) against San Jose is too irregular. It needs to show up every night.
What doesn't need to happen is for Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff to be chased out of town. For what they are given by the ownership, the longest tenured tandem in North American sports make the best of it. With rumors of Terry Pegula wanting to buy the Sabres, these two men at the helm for a team that is willing to spend would be the best possible situation for the Sabres.
With a steady defense, and strong play from Miller, and an acceptable offense, the Sabres should have no excuse to not be in the playoffs.