Make no mistake, the Buffalo Sabres are aware of where they sit in the NHL lexicon. On Sunday morning they woke up in 24th place and eliminated, yet again, from the playoffs. No one is content with that situation.
But there is something intangibly different about this edition of the Sabres. The rhetoric has changed. Instead of talking about losing, the Sabres are looking for ways to win, even when winning no longer really matters.
Buffalo will look to win its third straight game Monday night in Detroit against the Red Wings in Joe Louis Arena.
Its last two wins have been of the come-from-behind variety. In Raleigh, the Sabres trailed the Carolina Hurricanes, 2-1, before scoring twice in the final 3:49 for a 3-2 win.
Saturday afternoon the Sabres went down, 2-0, in the first five minutes of the game but rallied with two third-period goals for a 3-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets in First Niagara Center.
That kind of effort that may not have happened in the last few years when postseason hopes were vanished and players were fighting the urge to run for the golf course.
“It shows that we care despite where we are in the standings,” said forward Zemgus Girgensons. “We’re definitely improved from last season but I think we could have been way higher if we stuck with it throughout the whole season but it shows the guys care no matter what time it is.
“Last season at this point, probably most guys gave out. We have a different group of guys and everyone cares about each other. You play for the guy who’s sitting next to you and in front of you. It’s a good group.”
The Sabres are 6-3-3 this month. That’s their best record in March since going 10-3-2 in 2012. Last year the Sabres went 2-8-3 and in 2014 they went 2-11-1.
“I think what we’re trying to build with this group is the expectation to win,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said after the team’s win at Carolina on Tuesday. “We will not be in the playoffs but we’re still trying to build our team. We talk about it before every game; we have something to prove as a team and we need to expect to go out and win hockey games. That’s what I like about the fight of our team. … You keep the fight and you keep going and you get results.”
Score more goals and you tend to get better results.
This March, the Sabres have scored 31 goals and given up 31. The previous two seasons, the Sabres were outscored in March by a combined 83-44. The last time they outscored opponents in March was 2012 (48-33).
The key, and the recurring theme for the franchise throughout the season, has been its rookie class. Sam Reinhart leads the team this month with 11 points while Jack Eichel has a team-best six goals in 11 games.
“We talked about our leadership and our leaders before the game,” Bylsma said Saturday afternoon. “I really don’t look at” Reinhart and Eichel “as rookies or young players any more. They’re players stepping up for our team and leading our team in a lot of ways.”
While the Sabres are fighting for pride, they meet a Red Wings team coming off an embarrassing 7-2 defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Detroit on Saturday.
“It was frustrating,” Detroit coach Jeff Blashill said to Detroit reporters after Saturday’s game. “It was embarrassing. But it’s a loss. That’s it.”
But the losses are mounting and proving costly for the Red Wings. With seven games left they sit on the outside of the playoff picture, trailing Philadelphia and the New York Islanders for an Eastern Conference Wild Card spot. If Detroit misses the playoffs it would be the first tiem after 24 straight appearances.
The Red Wings may get some good karma Monday as Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe, is scheduled to be at the game. Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press reported that Howe’s family plans to bring him to the game. The Detroit hockey legend, who turns 88 on Thursday, played for the Wings from 1946-71 and led the team to Stanley Cup championships in 1950, ’52, ’54 and ’55.