Last year was a huge disappointment for the Buffalo Sabres.
Not only did the team have the propensity to fall behind early and try in vain to come back (in contrast to the 2005-06 and 2006-07 campaign, where the "Cardiac Kids" thrilled fans on their way to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals appearances), the team missed the playoffs for the first time in the post-lockout era.
Of course, the loss of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere after the '06-'07 season goes without saying, as well.
This year got off to a red-hot start, with a 6-2-2 record in October and a 9-3-3 mark in the first 15 games.
Then the wheels came off.
A brutal 6-1 loss to the Blue Jackets. A 5-2 loss to the resurgent Penguins. Then three straight losses to Boston, Philadelphia and the Islanders. The Sabres avenged their losses to the Bruins and Pens at home, but subsequently went on a three-game losing streak.
Things looked to improve with a squeaker in Tampa and a comeback from 3-1 down to beat Pittsburgh, followed by another comeback victory against the lowly Lightning.
However, a disappointing third period against the Leafs on Friday night, which saw the Sabres on a prolonged powerplay, led to a 2-1 loss, snapping Buffalo's three-game winning streak.
Despite all this, the Sabres find themselves barely hanging on to the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. It's still early with 43 games remaining for the team, but can they continue to stay in the thick of things and return to the postseason?Strengths:
The Vanek Factor
You can't mention the Sabres without mentioning the tremendous year Thomas Vanek has had. He was held scoreless in Friday night's loss to Toronto, yet he still leads the NHL with 22 goals. The driving force behind the Sabres' comeback wins over Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, Vanek seems to have had a knack for the clutch goal so far.
Buffalo's penalty kill has been outstanding this year. They ranked third in the league with 88.8 percent going into Friday night's action, with only the Rangers and Wild killing off man-down situations with greater success.
Less Than 60 Minute Efforts
While Buffalo tends to play well for a couple of periods a game, there seems to be one period where things fall apart. Example: the Bruins game at the Garden on November 19.
The Sabres entered the second period with a 4-3 lead only to give up four unanswered goals, including two in the second, to lose 7-4. Friday night's game was no different, with a sub-par third period effort being the difference. Which leads to...
Buffalo essentially found itself on an almost six-minute powerplay to begin the third on Friday night, but Toronto seemed to get the better chances. All the Sabres managed was one powerplay shot in that span.
The team hasn't fared much better on the man advantage this season as a whole: 17.6 percent, or 17th in the league going into tonight's game.
Who Else Will Step Up?
The Sabres had 77 goals in all before Friday. Vanek had 22 of them. That's 55 goals scored among the rest of the team; Jason Pominville and Derek Roy have 17 of them.
More players like Drew Stafford, Ales Kotalik, and Jochen Hecht need to take a greater role in offense. In goal, Ryan Miller has been shaky at times, so can he become the goaltender he was a few years back?
It's not impossible for the Sabres to get into the middle of the conference: six points separate them from fourth-place Montreal (as of this writing). But many things need to be addressed if they are to return to the postseason.
The Sabres seem to have the most success when they stick to a more traditional style, rather than trying to make pretty plays all the time. Again, it's a long season, but every point counts.