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A Race to the Finish

Sabres try to lock up playoff berth

Has it not been an exciting month at HSBC Arena?

Ever since February 23, Pegula Day, and the subsequent week’s trading deadline, when the Sabres acquired Brad Boyes, the team has been locked in a death struggle with the pack in the middle of the conference to snag one of those last precious playoff berths.

Buffalo not playing tonight? No problem. Keep an eye on the Toronto game. Or Carolina. Or the surging New Jersey Devils, who rose from the ashes under interim Coach Jacques Lemaire to make the team relevant again. Each point so valuable. Each point not gained so tragic. “These teams are really so close in terms of parity and talent these days,” says Coach Lindy Ruff. “In this league you don’t see blowouts like you used to.”

As the teams head into the final weekend of regular season play, the Buffalo Sabres are well positioned to capture at least eighth place and clinch a playoff berth for the second season in a row. Quite an accomplishment for a team that opened the season at 3-7-2, did not win its first home game until November 13, and at one point was dead last in the 30-team league.

There are four teams chasing the last three berths in the East. Montreal, New York Rangers, and Buffalo control their own destinies, with Carolina on the outside looking in and needing some help. The Sabres could finish as high as sixth, or capture one of the bottom two seeds. Or, with an epic collapse, they might find themselves out altogether. “We’re really not looking at any particular seeding, our goal right now is to make the playoffs, finish as high as we can, and enter the playoffs looking strong,” says Jason Pominville.

No matter where the Sabres land, they will be opening the Stanley Cup playoffs on the road to a higher-seeded team.

But while Buffalo fans are keeping a keen eye at the bottom of the playoff standings, there is another race going on to determine who will finish first in the East, and what the seedings will be at the top. Remember that #1 will play #8, #2 will play #7, and #3 will play #6. All three top finishers are the division champs, but for seeding purposes, all the current top teams are within a couple points of each other, and all would like to claim the top spot.

So let’s take a look at Buffalo’s potential first round opponents. Who do the Sabres match up well against?

Boston Bruins

Season record vs. Bruins: 4-1-1

The Bruins are this year’s Northeast Division champions, and have all but cemented the third seed in the conference, meaning that Buffalo would have to leapfrog both Montreal and New York to see them in the first round.

What the Bruins bring to the table is the stellar goaltending play of Tim Thomas (above) and Tuuka Rask. Both are hardscrabble, playoff-tested veterans. Both have put numbers worthy of Vezina Trophy consideration. And of course, big defenseman Zdeno Chara makes his presence known whenever he is on the ice. Yet Buffalo has had surprising success this season against the Bruins, none more memorable than when Drew Stafford nailed his third hat trick against Boston back on December 15.

Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley, and David Krejci offer some of the best penalty-killing skills anywhere.

Washington Capitals

Season record vs. Caps: 1-2-1

Alexander Ovechkin (above) seems to be back in his peak form after fighting some nagging injuries throughout the regular season, and few could argue with his play last Saturday against the Sabres, where he scored the game-winning goal in overtime.

The bigger questions surrounding the Caps revolve around their defense, as they have sustained some huge injuries to key players in their lineup. Dennis Wideman, who was a pest in a Boston uniform against the Sabres last season, just suffered a lower body injury and isn’t coming back anytime soon. John Erskine and Tyler Sloane are also sidelined, and Coach Lou Boudreau has had to improvise. Mike Knuble and Nicklas Backstrom have gotten better as the season has gone along, and the young goaltending duo of Michael Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov has been solid, but neither have extensive playoff experience.

Philadelphia Flyers

Season record vs. Flyers: 1-2

(final game Friday, April 8)

The Flyers have been the beast of the East this season, but as the calendar winds down, they look to be a hapless mess. They have dropped six of their last eight games, have looked shaky in overtime, and have allowed other teams a shot at claiming the top seed in the conference as a result of their slide.

Brian Boucher and Sergei Bobrovsky have split the netminding duties on Philadelphia, but it is offense that has carried this team through much of the season. Players worth watching include Jeff Carter with his 36 goals and playmaking Claude Giroux with 49 assists. Right now the team is resting Danny Briere (above) and penalty killer Blair Betts, hoping to have them ready in time for the playoffs. The fortunes of this team will be decided by its goaltenders. Can they rise to the occasion as they did last season?

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