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Fever pitch as playoff push draws to a close

When the Buffalo Sabres limped into the All Star break after a dreadful run of road losses—with players on the verge of tears, among demands to fire the general manager, trade the goalie, lynch the owner—who in their right mind would have imagined that it would come down to this?

In mid February, rating agencies gave the Buffalo Sabres a 1.2 percent probability of making the playoffs. Now, with a week to go to the close of the regular season, and Las Vegas oddsmakers are accepting wagers that would have the Sabres make it to the final four.

Is the swagger back? That was the word being kicked around this past Saturday at First Niagara Center, as the Buffalo Sabres briefly took sole possession of eighth place in the East, a position they had not seen since December. The race for playoff seeding has now boiled down to four teams seeking the final two spots: Buffalo, Washington, Winnipeg, and the suddenly falling Ottawa Senators. Buffalo has five games remaining on its schedule.

“We know what to expect of each other on a nightly basis now,” says winger Jason Pominville. “Earlier this year we were a bit sloppy defensively, and that made it hard on our goalies. We put ourselves in a tough situation. At the same time we stayed together and turned things around.”

Ryan Miller stressed that for the rest of the season, it’s “get points, get points, get points.” Miller is expected to do most of the heavy lifting in net as the team’s schedule is spaced for the rest of the regular season, with only one back-to-back set of game nights left. “I’m just planning to play as much hockey as needed, and will have Lindy make the appropriate decisions as he sees fit,” says Miller when asked if he’d play the rest of the way.

As despondent as the mood was back in January as the team limped home from a long, crushing road trip, there is a sense of enthusiasm and desperation in the air as the Sabres look at the rest of the schedule: They control their destiny and have no plans to lose any of their remaining games. “I don’t know if you’d call it swagger,” said Marcus Foligno, whose play has sparked the team’s fortunes. “I’ve only been around here for 10 days or so, so I don’t have the basis to compare what it was like around here earlier this year. I can say that this team has the confidence to do just about anything. We know what we need to do. But as excited as everyone here is right now, we haven’t won anything yet, and there is work to be done. The minute we lose focus of that is when things will become unhinged, and in a hurry.”

Coach Lindy Ruff is happy with his team’s performance, but realizes that from here on in, every game and every shift will be tense. “You sit there, and it’s one-one, and you think that this game could still go either way,” says Ruff. The coach also recognizes the contributions of the new players. “The chemistry just happens, with Marcus [Foligno] on that line. With Corey [Tropp], he works the walls well, he makes good plays, but again he’s a tough guy to match when it comes to work ethic. If they work hard enough good things will come along.”

Pominville wants to just keep everything down to earth. “Scoreboard watching is okay, but really it’s up to us. We win and we’re in. We always knew we could do this. We believed in ourselves and in this room. Now it’s time to get it done. For us. For the fans.”

Dream and believe.

Taro sez...

• It is official. A new NHL-ready arena is set to begin construction in Quebec City in September, with a planned completion date of 2015. The Amphitheatre, as it will be called, will seat 18,000. Local officials are keeping mum on setting their sights on landing any specific NHL team. The Phoenix Coyotes are certainly the top candidate for relocation. Also, the owner of the New York Islanders has threatened to move the team out of Long Island if a replacement arena is not built. Their lease expires in 2015.

• Watch out for Phil Varone. The Sabres just signed him to an entry-level contract with the team, and since that signing he has been on fire for the AHL Rochester Americans. He was the hero for Rochester this past Friday, netting the only goal of the game and then the shootout winner against Syracuse.

• Craig Rivet and his Elmira Jackals have clinched the ECHL Atlantic Division. The Kelly Cup playoffs begin next week.

• One more reminder for the charity hockey game featuring Buffalo Sabres alumni vs. local celebrities on Team Daddio’s. Tickets are $7 at the door. The date is 3pm Sunday at the Buffalo State College Sports Arena. Proceeds benefit Paradise House.

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