On the balmiest day Buffalo has seen all winter, the Sabres left home to meet the cold, cruel world.
The weather has improved dramatically, both outside and inside the HSBC Arena, since the All-Star break. The Sabres, goal-starved and downwardly mobile in January, began to get back on their feet with back-to-back wins against New York foes this week. First, they traveled to Gotham and thumped the Rangers, 6-3, Tuesday. Then, it was back to Buffalo for a spirited, 2-1 overtime victory over the last-place Islanders Wednesday.
But the best team in the Empire State can't feast on its beleaguered neighbors to the east forever. Tonight the Sabres are in frigid, slush-bound Ottawa, where they will find out if their two-game winning streak has any legs against one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference (7, Empire, Radio 107.7, 1330).
"To be in the playoffs you have to beat the Islanders, especially at home. To beat the Islanders, 2-1, in overtime, of course we're happy with the two points, but I think we have to play much better," Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek said after Wednesday night's squeaker. "We have to win the games against teams like Ottawa and New Jersey."
And they have to do it now. Tonight's game is the first of three February bouts with the Northeast Division-leading Senators, whose advantage over the Sabres has dwindled to just seven points. Buffalo also has two dates this month with the Devils, who lead the Eastern Conference but are just one point ahead of Ottawa. With a strong showing in those five games, the Sabres could jump back into the race for home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
On the flip side, another Sabres' slump could bump Buffalo out of the playoff picture altogether. After New Jersey and Ottawa, the next seven teams in the conference standings are separated by just seven points. Carolina -- which would be the odd-man out if the playoffs began now -- is just four points behind Buffalo.
According to coach Lindy Ruff, tonight's game is about breaking through the Eastern Conference gridlock, not proving that the Sabres can beat an opponent with a winning record. With a victory, Buffalo draws to within five points of the Senators; with a loss, the Sabres fall nine points behind Ottawa, putting the division title all but out of reach.
"We've got a shot at finishing first. If we're going to do that, we're going to have to beat Ottawa," Ruff said.
"It's two more points," defenseman Rhett Warrener said. "Just because they're a top team, if we can beat them it will give us more confidence. But right now it's the two points, because the race is so tight."
As the postseason horizon draws nearer and nearer, the 'two points' mantra begins to echo through a lot of dressing rooms. Still, Thursday night's hard-fought 4-4 stalemate between the Devils and the Senators underscored the importance of every late-season matchup between contenders.
"Those two teams, there's a reason why they're on top," Ruff said. "Both teams skated well, and both goalies played really well in a 4-4 game. It was a playoff-type game, and we're looking for the same type of game out of our guys in Ottawa."
The Sabres have allowed the fewest goals against (123) in the Eastern Conference. Ottawa is second in the conference, with 128 goals against. . . . Winger J.P. Dumont showed up for Friday's practice, but he looked and felt so sick that the coaching staff sent him home to rest. The winger, who is suffering from flu-like symptoms, is questionable for tonight's game. . . . Forward Curtis Brown, who missed the Sabres' last four games with an injured back, likely will be back in the lineup tonight. . . . Holdout Michael Peca watched a few minutes of the Sabres' Friday practice at the Pepsi Center in Amherst, where Peca has been skating all season to keep in shape.
Who's hot: Stu Barnes has three goals and an assist in last three games
Record last 5: 3-2
Power play: 36 of 239 (15.1%)
Penalty killing: 27 of 211 (87.2%)
Injuries: Denis Hamel (out, knee surgery), Curtis Brown (probable, back), J.P. Dumont (questionable, flu)
Fast fact: NHL's fourth-best penalty kill (87.2% successful)
Who's hot: Alexei Yahsin (left), Daniel Alfredsson and Shawn McEachern all had a goal and an assist against the Devils
Record last 5: 1-2-2
Power play: 40 of 246 (16.2%)
Penalty killing: 36 of 241 (85.1%)
Injuries: D Sammy Salo (shoulder)
Fast fact: Senators lead NHL in wins against Eastern Conference opponents (24)