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Crunch Time

Playoff seeding at stake as team hits the road

While Buffalo might be one of the epicenters of the basketball universe this weekend, what with the NCAA subregional in town, fans will nonetheless keep a keen eye on the Buffalo Sabres, who are in the middle of yet another extended road trip, this time five games before returning home next Wednesday.

What is at stake?

Barring an unimaginable collapse, the team will reach the postseason for the first time since 2007. Right now they are perched at the top of the division, meaning that they would earn at least the third seed in the conference and be guaranteed to start the playoffs at home in the first round, as well as get the deciding seventh home game in the friendly confines of HSBC Arena, should the series go that far.

Additionally, the Sabres would face off against one of the middling competitors in the conference, and right now that’s looking like Boston, Philadelphia, Montreal, or the New York Rangers.

But should the team lose that top perch, they would then fall to fifth or sixth in the seedings. That would mean facing New Jersey, or perhaps Pittsburgh, or even worse (insert shriek here), the Ottawa Senators. Plus they would have to start on the road, and play a deciding seventh game in the enemy’s building.

“Obviously we would like to win the division, hang a banner for our fans, and take the easier road,” said Mike Grier this past week. “But whatever the outcome is, we will deal with it and be ready. This is what we all play for, the chance to be in the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup.”

The teams to watch right now are Ottawa and Montreal. The Senators looked invincible leading up to the Olympics break, setting a franchise record for consecutive wins and erasing a sizable points deficit to overtake the Sabres for the division lead. Since the break they have lost five of their first six games, allowing Buffalo to retake the lead.

Meanwhile, the Canadiens or on a tear, winning six of seven after the break, to climb within striking distance of the division crown.

Buffalo will have two huge games against these foes once they return home, Wednesday against Montreal and then Friday versus Ottawa. Nobody on the team is thinking that far ahead. “Right now we’ve got a huge road trip and we have to pick up some points,” replied Jason Pominville.

There is good news and bad news if one wants to analyze the remaining Sabres schedule. The good news is that more than half of the opponents are non playoff teams. The bad news is that the team will only have one home game in the month of April, and will have to play five of their last six games on the road.

Come next week it should be a playoff atmosphere at HSBC Arena. What will be at stake might determine how far and deep the Sabres go into the playoff calendar come April and May.

Chris Butler, take a seat

The latest Sabre to enter Coach Lindy Ruff’s doghouse is defenseman Chris Butler, whose season long inconsistent play finally got some attention. Butler has now been a healthy scratch for the past few games, and has been replaced in the lineup by Andrej Sekera. Against Detroit this past weekend, Sekera looked especially sharp, shutting down the potent Red Wings offense and effectively clearing the puck given the opportunity. The best thing to do right now is give Sekera a chance to play and gather experience, which might pay off big once the playoffs begin.

Unless the Sabres start another bad losing streak, look for Ruff to stay with his lineup. Butler will yet be a good defenseman, but this could be a good pause for both him and the team.

Taro Sez...

• Ryan Miller received some well deserved recognition during his media tour in New York City last week, including an appearance on NBC’s The Today Show. That said, it is sobering to see that many of the tourists watching from outside initially had no clue who he was or what the significance of his appearance on the program meant.

• Is hosting Saturday Night Live next for Miller?

• A small but raucous crowd of just over 4,000 fans at HSBC Arena watched the Portland Pirates farm team lose 3-2 to the Rochester Americans last Sunday. With head coach Kevin Dineen suspended, bench duties were given to assistant Eric Weinrich. So what was Weinrich’s coaching strategy? “I just sent three guys at a time to go out there and skate.” Brilliant.

• Taro’s NCAA winners in Buffalo in round one: Clemson, West Virginia, Florida State, and Syracuse.

• A big welcome to the fourth gathering of NCAA revelers to the Ultimate Sports Road Trip’s group this year. Attendees include Alan Bossin, Harold Cares, Mike Simons, Gary Farb, and Ephraim Fiksel from Toronto; Rich McKnight and Ryan Nagelhout (The Goose’s Roost guys), and Christopher Mach and Billy Zilliox from Buffalo. Rounding out the list is John Farrell Sr., John Farrell Jr., and making a cameo appearance and his first tourney is six-year-old John Stephen Farrell. Welcome to Buffalo, all!

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