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Sabres begin final countdown; Mathematics look daunting as team tries to squeeze into playoffs

It was a season that began more than 25 weeks ago, amid the splendor of faraway Finland and the Stanley Cup dreams that the deep pockets of owner Terry Pegula had dancing in the head of every Buffalo Sabres fan.

We have reached the final week. Three games to go and the math doesn't look very good.

As for making the playoffs, the Sabres are close to being toast.

The Sabres couldn't beat Pittsburgh backup goaltender Brent Johnson Friday night or Toronto callup Ben Scrivens on Saturday. Two regulation losses at the worst possible time basically erased all the goodwill of their 20-game run from the Eastern Conference basement through Tuesday's triumphant showdown in Washington.

The Sabres were off Sunday and meet the Leafs again here Tuesday night in the home finale at First Niagara Center. They have to win that game. Period. Only then should they even bother to start checking out-of-town scoreboards again.

"Just win. It's been that way since two months ago. My story hasn't changed," goaltender Ryan Miller said in the quiet Air Canada Centre locker room after Saturday's 4-3 defeat. "You knew it was going to take that kind of effort anyway. We just put ourselves in a little bit tougher spot by not coming up with the games after playing Washington."

The Sabres are stuck on 86 points and are two behind Washington, with the Capitals also having the tiebreaker advantage.

The best the Sabres can do is 92 -- and that's only by pulling off a difficult sweep of the last three games, the return match against the Leafs as well as Thursday's game in Philadelphia and Saturday's matinee in Boston.

With the tiebreaker edge, the Capitals thus need just four points in their last three games (starting tonight at Tampa Bay) to get to 92 and keep Buffalo at bay.

And the Sabres can no longer catch Ottawa either, as the Senators improved to 92 points with Sunday's 5-1 win on Long Island that clinched their playoff berth.

After a 1-3-2 slide that brought the Sens in range of Buffalo, Ottawa has won four straight to head off the Sabres' charge. That included wins at Winnipeg and Philadelphia as well as a home rout of Pittsburgh.

Another mathematical chance for the Sabres would be to catch the Florida Panthers, who are trying to hold off Washington in the Southeast Division.

After Sunday's 2-1 shootout loss in Detroit, the Panthers are at 91 points. They host running-for-the-bus Winnipeg Tuesday before traveling to DC for a showdown on Thursday with the Capitals and hosting Carolina in their finale Saturday.

The Panthers need just two more points to close out the Sabres. If they finish with only 92 and Buffalo sweeps its three games, the Sabres would likely have the tiebreaker edge. Each team has 31 regulation/overtime victories and the season series is 2-1-1 for each side, but Buffalo would get the nod on better overall goal differential.

All this, of course, comes with the Sabres again in dire shape on the injury front. Defensemen Christian Ehrhoff (knee), Tyler Myers (foot) and Mike Weber (upper body) all missed Saturday's game and it remains to be seen if any of them will play this week.

Think the injuries make a difference? The Sabres are just 2-9-2 when Ehrhoff is out and 36-22-8 with him. They're 7-10-6 in the games Myers has missed due to injury or suspension and 31-21-4 with the big guy on the ice.

Not surprisingly, the defense struggled over the weekend. Andrej Sekera's giveaway on the power play that led to Joey Crabb's short-handed goal Saturday put the Sabres in an early hole. They never got ahead of a Toronto team that had gone 11 games and 54 days without a home win.

"We know where we're at. With depleted defense, we've put ourselves in a real tough spot," coach Lindy Ruff said Saturday. "We have to play a cleaner game than that.

"To try to chase a game with two of our more mobile defensemen out of the lineup that are on the offensive side of it, it's tough to chase. You're going to make some mistakes."

"What's tough is when you keep falling behind playing catchup hockey," added captain Jason Pominville. "Obviously with the rivalry and them having a tough time, there's nothing more satisfying for them to get us out of this hunt."

The weekend loss was very bad timing for just the second no-point showing among Buffalo's NHL-high 21 sets of back-to-back games this season. It continued the Sabres' trend of poor second-night play.

The Sabres were 13-8-0 in the first game of back-to-backs this year but just 7-9-5 in the second. Saturday's defeat could stand as the most crippling one of all.