Here's something to ponder while trying to figure out how many players and how many years away the Sabres remain from becoming a championship contender: You know how many times at least one team in the Stanley Cup Final failed to earn at least 100 points during an 82-game regular season?
Over the past 18 seasons, only three Stanley Cup champions failed to earn 100 points during the regular season. One was the 2012-13 Blackhawks, whose 77 points during the 48-game season put them on pace for 131 over a full year. Another was the 2008-09 Penguins, who had 99 points after finishing 18-3-4 under Dan Bylsma.
The third was the 2011-12 Kings, who grabbed the No. 8 seed before going 16-4 in the playoffs. Los Angeles was a team fans in desperate hockey outposts like Buffalo held up as an example that everything can snap into place. You hear the same thing every year: Get in the playoffs because you never know.
People forget the Kings finished higher in the standings in each of the two previous seasons before winning it all, that they added key players in offseason trades and were a team on the rise. Anyone paying close attention could see the Kings were coming hard, which was why they were among preseason favorites to win the whole thing.
It wasn't dumb luck. Nobody wins the Cup by accident.
That brings me to the abnormality known as the Nashville Predators, another source of hope for fans who believe anything can happen in the postseason. The Preds limped into the playoff with five losses in their final seven games, finished with 94 points and grabbed the second wild-card spot.
Some doubted whether they would win one game in the first round against Chicago, let alone four, before they swept the Blackhawks. Nashville won the first game in St. Louis and knocked out the Blues in six games. In the conference finals, the Predators won the first game in Anaheim and beat the Ducks in six.
The Predators are in the Stanley Cup final for the first time in history, and fans are dancing in Music City the way they danced in the Nickel City in 1999. The Sabres were a seventh seed that year and reached the finals, an accomplishment worth noting but not exactly out of the ordinary.
Lower seeds advance in the NHL with much more frequency than they do in the NBA, making the early rounds in hockey less predictable and more exciting than the early rounds in basketball. In September, anybody could have confidently predicted the Warriors and Cavaliers would play for the NBA title.
In hockey, anomalies like Nashville can come together at the right time and surprise people. The Predators and the '99 Sabres look much the same: Terrific goaltending, sound defense corps, very few superstars across four balanced lines, enough offensive production and perfect chemistry.
Buffalo is notorious for its passion for playoff hockey, with or without the Sabres. Our region is usually third when it comes to television ratings for the finals, just behind the two teams involved. I'm sure Buffalo fans are conflicted when watching Nashville, a small-market underdog threatening to win a Cup before the Sabres do.
The difference between the Predators and Sabres in recent years was that Nashville didn't tank and, therefore, didn't have as far to climb toward the top. Three years ago, they had 88 points and finished 10th in the conference. Rather than give up, or believe they were eternally in neutral, they continued searching for the right combination.
Nashville stole Filip Forsberg, the 11th pick overall in 2012 draft, in a trade with Washington and watched him become a 30-goal scorer. They drafted and developed Viktor Arvidsson, a fourth-round pick in 2014 who this season tied for the team lead in goals (31) and points (61).
Along the way, they missed the postseason two years in a row but didn’t get discouraged. In 2015, they were eliminated in the first round. Last season, they lost in the second round. For a while, there was a sense they couldn't get past the likes of Chicago, Anaheim, San Jose and other conference heavyweights.
Last summer, they turned their attention toward finding the right players, not necessarily the best players. They shipped franchise defenseman Shea Weber to the Canadiens for another in PK Subban, a better fit. Subban complemented other good, less-heralded defensemen in Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis. They groomed bottom-six forwards like Colton Sissons, who became a cult hero in Nashville during the playoffs.
Three years ago, with little fanfare, Nashville hired Peter Laviolette as their coach after he won a Stanley Cup with Carolina and lost one with Philadelphia. He joined legends Dick Irvin (Chicago, Toronto, Montreal), Scotty Bowman (St. Louis, Montreal, Pittsburgh, Detroit) and Mike Keenan (Philly, Chicago, New York Rangers) as the only coaches in history to steer three teams to the finals.
Nashville finished in the middle of the pack with a 41-29-12 record this season, but it was deceiving. In their first 40 games, the Preds were 17-16-7. Over their final 42 games they were 24-13-5. If they performed all season the way they did in the second half, they would have finished with 103 points.
And then they shut out the Blackhawks and their high-powered offense in the first two games. They gained trust in one another and confidence as a team. Pekka Rinne was fabulous in net, no question, but hot goaltending wasn't the sole reason for their success. It came in various forms and from everybody.
The Predators earned 94 points this season and made the playoffs, facts that cannot be disputed. Like the Kings, who were 24-13-10 over their final 47 games five years earlier, there were signs. Like the Kings, the Predators became a 100-point team without actually earning 100 points during the season. All along, they were what the standings suggested: a wild card.
Dumb luck didn't get them his far. Smart decisions did.