What's next for the reeling Buffalo Sabres? Exactly what they don't need: A brutal schedule to finish the final 15 games of their season.
The Sabres took a CBA-mandated day off Wednesday and will be back on the ice Thursday morning at HarborCenter preparing for a grueling weekend home-and-home series against Columbus. The Blue Jackets have designs on catching the Washington Capitals for the Presidents' Trophy as the league's top team, as they have 90 points and are just five back.
The Sabres, in fact, play all three of their meetings against Columbus in a 19-day stretch, with another visit to the Ohio capital set for March 28. The March 20 trip to Detroit is the only remaining game against a team that entered Wednesday either not in a playoff position or within four points of one.
Buffalo is seven points behind the New York Islanders for the final wild-card slot in the East -- and the Brooklynites have two games in hand.
"It's going to be a challenge for the group," a somber coach Dan Bylsma said after Tuesday's 6-3 defeat to Philadelphia in KeyBank Center. "I put it out there after the game. We've got to decide how we're going to come back here and play these last 15."
The Sabres have 66 points and their pace of 81 would put them exactly at last year's total. Treading water was not what this organization had in mind this season. Of greater concern is that Buffalo is only five points out of the East cellar, actually closer to the bottom of the conference than to a playoff spot.
Buffalo was within two points of a playoff spot after its Feb. 18 win over St. Louis and has hung in the 3-5-point range for the last several games until Tuesday's defeat, which was combined with the Islanders' 4-1 win in Edmonton.
The Sabres are 1-5-2 since that St. Louis game and 1-4-2 since returning from their bye week.
Sportsclubstats.com has the Sabres' chances of making the playoffs at 0.2 percent. Even in the unlikely scenario the Sabres go 12-1-2 in the remaining games to finish at 92 points, they would still only have a 51.4 percent chance of qualifying.
After the Columbus series, which opens Friday in Nationwide Arena and returns to Buffalo for a rematch on Saturday, the Sabres head west for three games. They play Tuesday in San Jose -- where they have won five straight -- before playing Thursday in Los Angeles and Friday in Anaheim.
The Detroit game, the Sabres' final visit to Joe Louis Arena, is followed by a back-to-back at home the next night against Pittsburgh. Toronto is here March 25 for one of its two visits over the final eight games, contests that have been marked on the schedule for weeks as potential playoff showdowns but now look like they will be crucial for just the Auston Matthews-led visitors.
The Sabres' remaining games also feature two meetings with Florida and one each with the Islanders, Montreal and Tampa Bay.
The Sabres are 14-19-9 against the Eastern Conference this year, including an ugly 5-9-5 mark against the Metropolitan Division. They are 13-9-3 against the West.
"Day in and day out you come back and you're still only five points out. This was another huge game for us and it's a disappointing start," captain Brian Gionta said of the Flyers game, which saw Philly pour 16 shots on the Buffalo goal in the first period. "It's just extremely frustrating saying the same things and getting the same results."
After starting 16 of the last 19 games, Goalie Robin Lehner has hit a rough patch and seems to be wearing out. Lehner is 1-1-1 in March with a 3.25 goals-against average and .881 save percentage. But his troubles go back even further than that.
In the last six games, Lehner is 1-3-2 and has given up 28 goals. He has a 4.59 goals-against average and .853 save percentage in that span.
After Tuesday's defeat, a subdued Lehner admitted it seemed like a long season of blown leads and comebacks has taken its toll.
"When we're behind, I feel like we play a little bit different. We go all in and create a bunch of stuff," he said. "It's a little bit of the opposite when we're up. We sit back and it's not been working for us. We all just have to take a look at what we're doing better."