UPDATE: With a regulation loss to the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday, the Sabres have been eliminated from postseason contention.
BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — So you’re saying there’s a chance?
For the first time in 10 years, the Sabres are playing meaningful hockey games in April as the team makes its push to end the longest playoff drought in NHL history, and things are coming down to the final days of the regular season.
Buffalo is competing alongside the New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers for the final two wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference playoffs. While the Sabres are still in the playoff race, they have the most ground to make up, as they sit behind all of them in the standings. Here’s where things stand entering Tuesday’s games:
While the Sabres’ playoff odds range by the model, they are widely accepted as the fourth-place team in the race. They sit with a 2.2% chance to make it according to MoneyPuck, a 5% chance according to The Athletic and a 9.5% chance according to Evolving Hockey.
Betting odds paint a similarly bleak picture, with Buffalo at +1480 to make the playoffs and -3500 to not on FanDuel.
So what needs to happen for Buffalo to make the playoffs? They need to take care of business, and they need some help.
What do the Sabres need to do?
Shocker: they need to win these last few games.
Buffalo plays its final three games over a four-day span to close out its season, with the potential to max out at 93 points. However, games in hand are never guaranteed victories.
Every one of Buffalo’s games down the stretch are integral, as any regulation loss eliminates them from postseason contention.
The Sabres finish their season with a road matchup Tuesday against the talented New Jersey Devils coached by Lindy Ruff, who was behind the bench the last time Buffalo made the playoffs in 2010-11. They play their final home game Thursday against Ottawa and cap off the year in Columbus against the lowly Blue Jackets on Friday.
If momentum is anything to go off of, the Sabres are in with a chance. They’ve gone 7-1-1 over their last nine games and the play of recently signed goaltender Devon Levi has been a massive reason for that stretch. Levi has gone 4-1-0 in his first five NHL starts and boasts a .908 save percentage. On Monday, the 21-year-old stopped four of five shootout attempts to preserve a 3-2 Sabres win over the Rangers.
What about the Islanders, Penguins and Panthers?
A lot can happen over the next few days among these three teams, but one thing is certain: the more they lose, the better the Sabres’ playoff chances become.
As of Tuesday, the Islanders, Panthers and Penguins are all in with a strong chance to make the postseason. While Florida and New York currently hold the wild card spots, Pittsburgh controls its own destiny, and can jump the Islanders if they win their final two games.
The Penguins close their season with the easiest schedule in the NHL, facing the second-worst and worst teams in the league. Pittsburgh takes on the Blackhawks on Tuesday and the Blue Jackets on Thursday. Florida has just one, integral game left in their regular season, as they square off with the playoff-bound Hurricanes on Thursday. As for the Islanders, they face the bottom team in the Atlantic Division, the Montreal Canadians, on Wednesday in their 82nd game.
New York remains without star forward Mat Barzal, who has been out since mid-February with a lower-body injury, but did resume skating recently. The absence of the 25-year-old hasn’t hindered them much, however, as they’ve gone 13-8-2 without him. A significant 4-2 loss to the Capitals on Sunday put a dent in their playoff hopes.
The Panthers continued to roll with goalie Alex Lyon in Monday’s overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The 30-year-old who was once the team’s third-string goalie stepped up massively in place of an ill Sergei Bobrovsky during a recent stretch and has remained the starter despite the Russian’s return. Lyon has tallied an impressive .916 save percentage on the year.
If the Sabres do hypothetically win out, in order to jump into a wild card spot, it requires at least one of the Islanders and Panthers to lose their final game and the Penguins to drop at least two points in their final two matchups.
What’s a scenario that gets the Sabres in the playoffs?
With the season coming down to the wire, the scenarios that were once expansive are fairly straightforward now.
So, let’s say one of the good endings for Sabres fans unfolds.
This scenario would require the Sabres to go 3-0-0 in their final three games, taking the maximum of six points.
Three Sabres victories alongside a Florida regulation loss to the Hurricanes, who are currently the second-ranked team in the league standings, a Pittsburgh regulation loss to either Chicago or Columbus, and an Islanders win against Montreal would result in the following standings and allow the Sabres to sneak in as a wild card:
Conversely, if the Sabres drop just one of their final three games in regulation, they will be eliminated from playoff contention.
Needless to say, the margins are slim and every single point gained and lost between now and Friday among the four squads will be of major significance to the others.
The Sabres being in the position they are was not a common expectation when the season started, and it gives fans the opportunity to ride the rollercoaster of being in the hunt in the regular season’s last week.
While Buffalo ending its record playoff drought remains unlikely, the possibility exists. It’s on the youngest roster in the NHL to control what they can control over the final four days, and maybe, just maybe, postseason hockey will return to KeyBank Center for the first time since “HSBC Arena” was inscribed around the logo at center ice.
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