The NHL All-Star break is over, and now the Buffalo Sabres are in the home stretch, where the teams in places around eighth place in their conference fight to attain or maintain a playoff berth. With 28 games to go and only four points from getting knocked out of a playoff spot, there are some things that must happen if the Sabres are to maintain a seed in the top 8 and advance to the playoffs.
First and foremost, Ryan Miller has to bring his A-plus game for the rest of the season, just as he has been since the new year. In the last month and a half, he has been carrying the team on his shoulders and is the primary reason for the Sabres' 11-5-1 record in that span, with Miller recording a 2.13 goals against average in his 13 games played. When Miller is great, the Sabres are good. When he's average, the team is average. It's not yet known if Miller is great. But anything can happen in the playoffs. He is at a prime age, 28, and he needs to step up as the franchise goalie the team expects him to be.
A team should never rely on a few forwards to take them all the way. Just ask the Ottawa Senators. For most of the season, the Sabres have won by relying on one forward to carry the team offensively. In the beginning it was Thomas Vanek, then Derek Roy led the charge, and now it's Tim Connolly. The Sabres need help from the supporting cast. Drew Stafford has come on real strong as of late, scoring 15 points in 17 games since the new year. Adam Mair, Matt Ellis, Paul Gaustad and Patrick Kaleta have done their jobs as "grinders." However, Jason Pominville and Jochen Hecht have been ice cold all season and are supposed to be two guys the Sabres rely on. Also, Clarke MacArthur has only four points in 2009 and Daniel Paille just three.
Vanek is out a month with a fractured jaw. No one knows how long Connolly can stay healthy. If the season were to end today, the Sabres would play the Washington Capitals in the first round. The best the Sabres could realistically hope for is to have their top line even out with the Ovechkin line. Therefore, other players need to contribute.
The trade deadline is approaching and it would be great if the Sabres could add a veteran to contribute on the third forward line. They have a surplus of defensemen who have been playing well, but they are promising youngsters such as Chris Butler and Mike Weber and strong veterans such as Jaroslav Spacek and Craig Rivet. There is probably little interest in 40-year-old Teppo Numminen or injured Henrik Tallinder. The Sabres are probably stuck in regards to trades. They must get better from within.
Lindy Ruff is a great coach and has seen just about everything. He can get players, such as Pominville, out of slumps. He has been instructing a strong defensive effort. Nevertheless, Miller has to be a wall for the Sabres. These things can happen, and if so, the Sabres could do some damage in the playoffs.
Derik Wagner is a sophomore at Canisius High School.