On Wednesday night, the Buffalo Sabres edged out the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in overtime – it was a huge win for a team that has been one of the biggest flops in the NHL this season. With the victory, Buffalo improved to 31-28-8 this season and now trail the Winnipeg Jets by just two points for the eighth and final playoff spot. So what is the reason for the turnaround?
The Sabres – who just over four weeks ago were the second worst team in the conference – are 12-4-3 in the last 19 games and are starting to look like the team everyone expected them to be when the season began in October.
The team’s current hot streak is similar to the one the Sabres had at the end of last season, when they finished on a 16-4-4 streak to earn a playoff spot on the final weekend.
“It's huge. We're making steps,” said Jason Pominville, who scored Wednesday night’s overtime game-winner. “We're playing better hockey. We've dug ourselves in a big hole that isn't easy to get ourselves out of. But we believe.”
The biggest reason for Buffalo’s hot streak has to be goaltender Ryan Miller’s improved play in between the pipes. Last week Miller –who has started 19 of the last 20 games – was voted the NHL’s number one star of the week thanks to back-to-back shutouts. In his last eight games, Miller had a .952 save percentage and a 1.60 goals-against average, which after a rough start to the season have brought his numbers back to a respectable level.
But the Sabres need their All-Star goaltender to stay hot, as they can’t afford to lose too many more games. With 15 games remaining on their schedule, coach Lindy Ruff knows time is running out.
“This is our playoffs,” Ruff said. “We've put ourselves on a nice run, but it's one game at a time and being ready to pick up the two points and move on to the next game.”
Despite being ranked 20th in the league in scoring, the Sabres have not had much trouble putting the puck in the net recently, thanks to Pominville and Thomas Vanek. Pominville currently leads the team in goals with 24, while Vanek is just one off the team lead. The two have been the driving force on offense for the Sabres as of recently. And Buffalo's big pickup this past summer Ville Leino has started to play better, despite still have difficulties getting on the score sheet. If history is any indication, that might change down the stretch after the way he finished the year with the Philadelphia Flyers two years ago.
For as hot as the Sabres have been, the two teams in front of them – the Washington Capitals and Jets – have struggled to remain consistent as of late. If it continues, the Sabres might be enjoying something most of their fans didn’t expect back in December – postseason hockey.
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