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Sloppy Sabres in midseason form

Lindy Ruff has admitted many times over the years, including this one, what many coaches had refused to acknowledge at this stage of the season. The Sabres coach can't resist sneaking a peek at the out-of-town scoreboard and calculating where his team stands.

Ruff had plenty of reason to glance toward the ribbon board Saturday night in the Air Canada Centre with Washington, leading Buffalo by only a tiebreaker in the conference playoff race, playing at home against Montreal. The better play would have been closing his eyes rather than watch the Sabres fall, 4-3, to the Leafs and the Caps beat the Habs.

"I was looking higher than that," Ruff said, pointing toward the heavens.

Higher? For what?

"For the big fella to help out."

The Sabres are going to need assistance from the hockey gods if they're going to make the playoffs. Buffalo dropped two points behind Washington, plus the tiebreaker, with three games remaining. The Sabres play the Leafs on Tuesday and finish the season with road games in Philadelphia and Boston.

Buffalo's plan Saturday called for picking up two points against an inferior team with an inexperienced goaltender, hopping on the team bus and declaring two points at the Peace Bridge.

Instead, their performance came to illustrate the season. Buffalo was sloppy, out of sorts, banged up, and, at times, listless. They came together and made a push just past the midpoint, provided hope late in the game and lost in the end.

If the Sabres miss the playoffs, that's how this season will be remembered.

Through it all, this much is evident: The Sabres are an average team unless Ryan Miller is at the top of his game. He had been superb and carried Buffalo through the tough times and back into contention. He had a 19-4-5 record with a 1.88 goals-against average and a .938 save percentage in his previous 29 games.

He was a teeny bit, a fraction, off his game against the Leafs, and it showed up on the scoreboard. Joey Crabb beat him high to the glove side, where he was vulnerable early in the season, for a short-handed goal in the first period. Phil Kessel beat him between his pads in the second. And there was the juicy rebound just before the horn.

Clarke MacArthur handcuffed Miller with a shot with less than three seconds remaining before the second intermission. The puck bounced skyward and off John-Michael Liles as the defenseman crashed the net. The puck crossed the goal line with 0.7 seconds remaining.

And the Sabres were history.

Can the same be said for the postseason hopes? Time will tell.

The Sabres had little wiggle room before losing two straight. There's no shame in losing to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins, but there's little excuse for being on the wrong end against Joey Crabb, Matt Frattin and Ben Scrivens in the biggest game of the year.

"It's a tough position to be in when you're hoping and wishing that teams around you are losing games," defenseman Robyn Regehr said. "We know where we are right now and what we're trying to do. You can't play that game of woulda, coulda, shoulda and that kind of stuff. We're in a situation right now, and we're trying to get out of it."

For a while, Buffalo resembled the Sabres of December and January. The bite that had been restored during their 19-5-5 tear was suddenly missing. They gave up the shorthanded goal and another one on the power play and failed to score on three opportunities with the extra man.

Buffalo had no defense given what was at stake and the mismatch in goal.

Raise your hand if you read the scouting report on Scrivens. The rookie played the previous night, too, in Rochester against the Americans. He had a 21-14-7 record in the AHL with a 2.07 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage.

Buffalo had a Vezina Trophy winner and U.S. Olympic hero back in top form.

Advantage: Scrivens. He made 29 saves Saturday and was the second backup in two nights to beat the Sabres.

Just look at the scoreboard.

"It's tough," Ruff said. "We've made it really tough on ourselves."