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The Drive for Ninth

For third year in a row, a desperate playoff push

This is becoming the tiresome script that is the Buffalo Sabres. The season begins with high expectations and visions of a deep run into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Then something happens like an injury or controversy in the locker room or some awful incident on the ice. Things start to unravel.

The team embarks on a lengthy losing streak. Finger-pointing begins. Closed-door team meetings. Fans calling for the coach’s and general manager’s heads.

Then something happens. A spark. One win becomes two, then a streak. Hope stirs anew. The team and the league run up toward the trade deadline and everyone asks: Will the Buffalo Sabres be buyers or sellers?

This was the road map back in 2011, when the Golisano era ended and the Pegula era began. This was the road map last season, when a stifling losing streak in January led to a stirring points run late that took the team just short of a playoff berth when it was all over. And that is where we are at this juncture in the season. Two weeks ago the team was flirting with being dead last in the league, and with the short schedule and teams only playing within their own conferences, they still aren’t that far away from the bottom of the standings.

Playoffs or no playoffs? Season ticket holders received their invoices in the mail this week, and have until April 22, four days before the end of the regular season, to commit their dollars for postseason tickets. Here are the arguments for and against:

The Sabres will make the playoffs:

• The team is 9-5-4 since Ron Rolston took over as interim head coach, and with baby steps, the team’s play continues to improve.

• Of the last 14 games, 10 will be played at home.

• Jhonas Enroth has finally shown that he can be a consistent backup goaltender.

• Steve Ott is quickly emerging as a team leader, and his name is being bandied about as the next team captain.

• Fans are starting to get into the groove. The Sabres/Leafs game last week was one of the most electric atmospheres in the arena in a long, long time.

• The Sabres have managed to figure out their power play. Maybe.

• Anthem singer Baylee Morrison is quickly emerging as a team good luck charm.

• The young players are responding to Rolston: Marcus Foligno, Tyler Myers, Tyler Ennis, Cody Hodgson, and Mike Weber have all seen statistical improvement since the new coach took over.

• Stop the presses: an entire week without second period meltdowns.

The Sabres won’t make the playoffs:

• With all teams playing within the conference, that means most teams are picking up points night after night. Every game not settled in regulation means two teams picking up points on the Sabres.

• For the third year in a row, 2-0 Sabres leads are precarious.

• Of the Sabres’ four remaining road games, two will be played in Pittsburgh. The Penguins were Sabres-killers even when Sidney Crosby was concussed. With him back and the team’s recent trade moves, who believes that Buffalo will return home from either trip to the Consol Energy Center with points?

• The Sabres veterans have actually encountered a decrease in output since the Rolston era began.

• The team’s position in the middle of the standings will not make them clear buyers or sellers on trade deadline day, so expect the general manager’s usual paralysis while others make bold moves.

• Giving up on high draft choice prospect T. J. Brennan left most scratching their heads.

The NHL trade deadline date is next Wednesday, April 3. Two huge games at home this weekend, hosting Washington and Boston, should set the table for the Sabres’ moves going into the critical next week.

Keep those playoff ticket invoices handy and on your desks at home. But don’t mail them in to the ticket office just yet.

Taro Sez…

• For anyone who is paying attention, is there anything more depressing than the sad and sorry performance of the 2013 Buffalo Bandits? The team won its fourth National Lacrosse League championship in 2008. In 2009, oh so close. In 2010, mediocrity. In 2011 and 2012, marginal. The current free-fall has rought the team perilously close to rock bottom, as the Bandits are not only losing at home but getting run out of their own building. Coach Darris Kilgour’s trade a year ago for aging goaltender Anthony Cosmo has been a disaster, and Buffalo can only marvel at how other teams are getting younger and faster and brighter while the Bandits’ brain trust clings to the game’s old guard.

The Bandits did bring in a new general manager last off-season, hiring former goalie Steve “Chugger” Dietrich. Will Dietrich make the boldest move of all and make a much needed change behind the Bandits’ bench? Parting ways with a legend, especially one whose name and number hangs from the rafters, could be the most difficult task of all.

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