The Buffalo Sabres’ path to the playoffs is filled with signs that read “Rough Road Ahead.”
It might soon read “Do Not Enter.”
The Sabres enter tonight’s home game against Montreal in 11th place in the Eastern Conference. More important than their standing is how far back of a playoff spot they have fallen.
The seventh-place New York Islanders and eighth-place Rangers both have 44 points. The Sabres are six back with 38. Each team has eight games remaining.
The Isles and Rangers are on pace for 53 points. For the Sabres to match that, they need to go 7-0-1 down the stretch.
“Anything can happen,” left wing Thomas Vanek said today First Niagara Center. “So many teams probably thought they were out of it, then they won three games in a row. Until the end, you have a chance.”
Another loss or two would all but end Buffalo’s chances.
“There’s a lot of points up for grabs here,” left wing Steve Ott said. “It’s going to be a tough task.”
Montreal is fourth in the Eastern Conference but has the third-most points with 55. The Habs are only one point behind Northeast Division-leading Boston. Buffalo is 4-0-1 in its last five home games against Montreal and 8-1-1 in the last 10 overall.
Ryan Miller will start in goal tonight. Interim coach Ron Rolston said Jhonas Enroth will start one of the Sabres’ next two games, either Saturday against Philadelphia or Sunday against Tampa Bay.
John Scott will be scratched for the Sabres.
“Everyone in that locker room still believes we’re a playoff team,” Rolston said.
Montreal and goaltender Peter Budaj have agreed to a two-year contract extension worth a reported $1.4 million per year. The Sabres host the Canadiens on Thursday, and the Habs announced that Budaj will start in place of No. 1 netminder Carey Price.
Budaj is 6-1-1 this season with a 2.28 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. The 30-year-old is 3-1 in his career against Buffalo with a 2.37 GAA and .922 save percentage.
The Sabres took today off following their late-night flight from Winnipeg.
MONTREAL -- We'll start with the cockeyed optimist approach. The Sabres' 3-2 overtime victory over the Canadiens has them just six points behind a logjam of teams (Carolina, Toronto, Rangers, New Jersey) that are tied for spots 6-9 in the Eastern Conference. And it came on a day the team actually sent out playoff invoices to season ticket holders that said it needed to be prepared "so that tickets are available WHEN the Sabres clinch a playoff spot." (I put the capitals in for emphasis). Ooooook.
I've stopped laughing now. The realistic approach is that they're still 13th in the East and they still have the league's worst power play. But the line shifts by Ron Rolston looked good until Thomas Vanek got hurt, the power play is starting to get more pressure and Jhonas Enroth has suddenly became as reliable as Ryan Miller.
After all the rigamarole over the last three days, this team is nothing but interesting no matter where its place in the standings is. Enough talking from me. Let them talk after the win.
MONTREAL -- Quick notes from the end of the Sabres' morning skate:
---Interim coach Ron Rolston said after Sunday's game he might break up the top line and he made good on the thought today. Thomas Vanek has been dropped to the second trio and replaced by Steve Ott. Patrick Kaleta is also back in after missing six games, five on his suspension and Sunday's as a healthy scratch.
The lines were Ott-Hodgson-Pominville, Vanek-Ennis-Leino, Foligno-Porter-Flynn, Hecht-Stafford-Kaleta. The scratches are Gerbe and Scott.
---Jhonas Enroth will be in goal in place of Ryan Miller. He's 2-0 in three games against the Habs in his career with a 2.42 goals-against average and .917 save percentage.
Lindy Ruff said it was the first play he thought of. Marcus Foligno said the memory quickly came back to him as well.
The Sabres tied Thursday night's game against Montreal with 1.9 seconds left as Thomas Vanek jabbed home a puck after a bullrush in the offensive zone by Marcus Foligno. It was eerily similar to Jordan Leopold's tying goal last April against Toronto that led to an an overtime victory.
That goal, however, Foligno never saw. After beating Toronto defenseman Mike Komisarek to the spot, Foligno was pinned to the ice with Komisarek's knee on his head. But he had the last word, finally getting up to howl at the Leafs veteran.
MONTREAL -- Ryan Miller's dominance of the Maple Leafs is well-known, but he's pretty darn good against Montreal, too.
Miller will get the start this afternoon against the Canadiens in Bell Centre, which isn't much of a suprise considering his career success against the Habs. He's 23-8-6 in 37 starts, with a 2.20 goals-against average and .926 save percentage.
Hear him talk about the state of his game and teammate Thomas Vanek in the audio file below.
The Canadiens are keeping No. 3 overall pick Alex Galchenyuk. (Getty Images)
By Mike Harrington
The Sabres are still up in the air with Mikhail Grigorenko even though the decision to keep him in the NHL seems like a no-brainer from this view. He's talented, he's creative and he plays center -- an area this team is woefully thin at. You want to see Grigorenko or Matt Ellis? You want them to force Ville Leino back to center, as Lindy Ruff mused about today? Please.
Keep the kid.
Still, it's only been 50-50 among other NHL teams about keeping key junior eligibles or sending them back. Here's a quick rundown:
John Vogl has been covering the Sabres since 2002-03, an era that has included playoff runs, last-place finishes and three ownership changes. The award-winning writer is the Buffalo chapter chairman for the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.
Mike Harrington, a Canisius College graduate who began his career as a News reporter in 1987, is in his sixth season covering the Buffalo Sabres. He is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and can vouch that exposed flesh freezes instantly when walking in downtown Winnipeg in January.