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Sabres entering homestretch Frantic schedule begins to ease up

A wild January schedule filled with road games is over. So is a killer three-games-in-four-nights jaunt that came directly on the heels of a West Coast trip.

The Buffalo Sabres finally get a chance to catch their breath with three days off before the Ottawa Senators play a return engagement Wednesday night in HSBC Arena. There are 28 games left in the season and the Sabres clearly have a favorable schedule in their quest to return to the Stanley Cup playoffs and perhaps get a mid-level seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Sabres are seventh in the East with 62 points but solidly in the race to finish as high as fourth, where Philadelphia sits with 65 points. Montreal has 64 while the New York Rangers have 63.

An analysis of the remaining schedule shows it's much more balanced than recent weeks, with 15 home games left and 13 to go on the road. The Sabres have played 12 of their last 17 games away from the arena -- but managed to go 11-5-1 in that stretch.

The Sabres will be hard-pressed to keep that momentum going, however, in the face of Sunday's news that leading scorer Thomas Vanek will be out three to four weeks after suffering a fractured jaw Saturday night in Ottawa.

As they move forward without Vanek, being at home more should benefit the Sabres because it appears they have finally figured things out downtown. Buffalo has won all five games in the arena since the calendar hit 2009 after struggling there for more than a year. A victory Wednesday would give them six straight at home for the first time since January 2007.

"We've got to approach it that we can't take anything for granted just because we're going to be at home more," said coach Lindy Ruff. "We got through a tough schedule, the focus was good and maybe with a little bit lighter schedule our focus has to be even better. We're going to be home more and at home there can be more distractions.

"The overall determined effort has been better. We've been able to close out games . . . and we've had games when we've been able to run the score up and give ourselves some distance. Overall, we've just been better."

Another point in the Sabres' favor is their remaining opponents. They have only five games left against teams that entered Sunday in the top three of their conference and four of those (San Jose, New Jersey, Detroit, Boston) are at home. Using that criteria, the only road elite left on the schedule is Washington.

The Sabres have nine games left, albeit six on the road, against East teams that are currently in need of a miracle to get back in the playoff race. They have eight home games and six road tilts left against clubs either currently in the top eight of their conferences or just barely on the outside looking in.

And while the Sabres are looking ahead, they also have to cast a wary eye to their rear. Carolina (59 points), Florida (58) and Pittsburgh (57) are all chasing and you have to imagine the Penguins have a big postseason push coming as they try to avoid missing the playoffs entirely a year after coming two wins shy of taking the Stanley Cup.

The Sabres still have three meetings left with the Hurricanes, two in Raleigh, and host the Panthers twice. Buffalo is done with Pittsburgh.

"No matter what the schedule says, that's why you never have a breather," General Manager Darcy Regier said. "You're trying to move forward but you're always being pushed from behind. What we do have is an opportunity to keep creating some momentum and building off that."

Travel and turnarounds will also be in Buffalo's favor.

The team does not leave the Eastern time zone the rest of the season and has only one three-game road trip remaining (Montreal, Atlanta, Washington). It also has only five sets of back-to-back games left. The Sabres are 6-5-1 in the first game of such sets but just 3-6-3 in the second one, 1-6-3 on the road in second games. They have split nine sets, lost three and have yet to win one.

As far as the schedule goes, the biggest impediment to the team's hopes is its April slate. The Sabres have seven games in 11 days to close the season and four of the five 'elites' (Washington, New Jersey, Detroit, Boston) are in that stretch.

"We really have to take advantage of where we're at right now," said forward Adam Mair. "We were able to go out west and against basically all playoff teams come back with a .500 record, which is not bad on the road. We have to carry that effort forward.

"Maybe the schedule is a little softer for a while but we have a much tougher stretch at the end with the seven [games] jammed in 11 days. So we've got to make gains when we can right now."

It would help, of course, if the team would be healthy. The Sabres have already lost 163 man games to injury this year and Vanek joins an absentee list that currently includes Andrej Sekera (ankle), Henrik Tallinder (shoulder), Paul Gaustad (shoulder) and Maxim Afinogenov (hip, groin).

"You always have an opportunity through adversity to get stronger," Regier said. "That's the approach we've tried to take and I think we've done that. We've seen our young players get a chance and really help us."

"We'll see how it goes and it should be interesting," said goaltender Ryan Miller. "Sometimes a tight schedule brings teams together when you're in the mix every other night. That November-December really killed us at times because it seemed it was three games in four [nights] every week. We got no rhythm [because of the long breaks after the third game] and got nothing started. Now we have a chance to get a rhythm the rest of the season."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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