"These Are Our Playoffs!"
by Andrew Kulyk & Peter Farrell
Lindy Ruff leads the charge as epic playoff race unfolds
So now it’s come to this. As many as nine teams, all bunched in together in the standings and all desperately competing for two playoff berths—one the third seed, which will go to the champion of the Southeast Division, and the second the eighth seed.
What does that all mean for the Buffalo Sabres?
Thanks to an amazing return from the abyss following the All Star break, the team is right in the middle of that playoff hunt. They find themselves just within striking distance of that eighth and final playoff position. That means for the last 11 games, every game, every period, every shift, every overtime, every shootout will count that much more.
Will the team be successful? Walking around the team facilities at First Niagara Center, one gets the sense that the players and coaches are all jacked up about this race. Coach Lindy Ruff, who looked like a beaten man back in January, suddenly has a sparkle in his eye. Players look at the standings board just outside the main dressing room with more than scant attention. Necks are craned toward the out-of-town scoreboard from down on the ice.
Of course, fans wish it weren’t this way, and can only wistfully look at the top tier of the standings and ask why Buffalo couldn’t be safely ensconced in that neighborhood. Nonetheless, these final three weeks of hockey will be an epic test of endurance and stamina, as just one team will be left standing come April 8, earning the right to play the first-ranked team in the Eastern Conference come the first round of the real playoffs.
Here is the rundown of Buffalo and its top competitors, and must games to watch on the coming calendar:
Washington: They have an outside shot at the Southeast crown and third seed, but their fate might be sealed early on, as they play twice against division rivals Winnipeg in a home-and-home. Sandwiched in between those two matchups is a road gauntlet against three elite teams, all on the road: Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. The Capitals have been playing well of late.
Winnipeg: ’Pegers are hoping for a playoff berth in their first season back in the NHL. They might just get it. In addition to the two Washington matchups, the team hits the road at the end of the month for games against Tampa Bay and Florida.
Toronto: They haven’t qualified for the playoffs since the end of the lockout, and the wheels are now coming off up there. Tim Connolly is not the great second line center everyone expected (how shocking), the team isn’t scoring, and the Leafs are plummeting in the standings. The home-and-home on March 31 and April 3 against Buffalo may be the final nail in Toronto’s coffin.
Tampa Bay: Another team everyone expects to just go away, but they are still within striking distance and could be the surprise finalist in this derby. Two games against Winnipeg, including the final day of the season at the MTS Centre, could prove to be huge.
Florida: The Panthers are the other team not to have been in the playoffs in the post lockout era. They seemingly have the easiest remaining schedule, and have stubbornly held on to the division lead and that third seed for much of the season. The April 5 game at Washington could be for all the marbles in the Southeast.
Buffalo: The Sabres have to beat some tough teams to get in, including road games against the New York Rangers, Philadelphia, and Boston. The home-and-home against Toronto also looms large. Even if the Leafs are out of it by then, those four points are an absolute must.
So the fans are paying attention. Is everyone else? “You bet we are,” says Ruff. “Gibby [Sabres spokesman Mike Gilbert] relays the scores to me every night.” Newest Sabre Alexander Sulzer adds, “We had a race like this once in the German League. After our games the team huddled around radios to follow the other action, that’s how involved we all were.”
In the midst of all this excitement, playoff ticket invoices have arrived in the mail, the temperatures around Western New York hit 60 degrees, and playoff fever is clearly in the air. Dream and believe.
• Paradise House will be sponsoring a charity hockey game between Buffalo Sabres alumni and Team Daddio’s Pizza, a group of local ice brawlers. The date is Sunday, April 1 at 3pm, at the Buffalo State Ice Arena. Tickets are $7 at the door or $5 presale; contact Rev. Ann Paris at 829-9213. Should be a fun event for a very worthwhile cause.
• After last weekend’s dismal loss, are the Buffalo Bandits at rock bottom? Just a reminder that they had the same 2-6 record just two seasons ago. Bandit Billy Dee Smith then proclaimed, “We can run the table and go 10-6.” They salvaged that season at a respectable 8-8 and made the playoffs. Still lots of lacrosse to be played, and these guys have the talent to come roaring back.blog comments powered by Disqus
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