Twelve games remaining, six teams in the hunt and, for now, two spots are available in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Buffalo Sabres have been playing with the oomph usually found in the postseason for nearly three months, and now they need to crank up their tenacity for another three weeks.
The Sabres' miserable 3-9-2 start, which left them sitting in 30th place among the NHL's 30 teams, continues to haunt them. Remember the listless nights and shoddy performances by a lost team headed for the ditch? All will be forgotten if they can reach what's shaping into the magic number: 90.
Since the lockout in 2004-05, the eighth-place team in the conference averaged just more than 90 points in the standings, a trend that is holding form. The Sabres have 76 points in 70 games, putting them on pace for 89 points. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff figured a playoff mentality would best supply the necessary push.
"We gotta play a best-of-12," Ruff said with a grin after the 1-0 loss Tuesday to the Carolina Hurricanes. "We gotta go 7-5 to win the series."
Is that going to be enough to make the playoffs?
"I think so," Ruff said. "You know what? You have to at least go that. We know it. We haven't had an easy game for the past 2 1/2 months, and I don't see any easy games in the future."
The Sabres, who took the day off Wednesday with their next game Saturday against Atlanta in HSBC Arena, have a 16-15-4 record this season against their remaining opponents. This race could be tighter than the Control Board.
According to numbers crunchers at sportsclubstats.com, the Sabres have an 87.4 percent chance of making the playoffs if they finish 7-5. It falls to 60.5 percent if they go 6-6. Although it remains mathematically possible to make the playoffs if they fall into a funk, the reality shows chances of getting there are slim unless they maintain a steady pace.
If you're looking for hope, Philadelphia slipped into seventh place last season on a tiebreaker after beating the New York Rangers in a shootout on the last day of the season. The Flyers finished with 88 points and marched through three rounds of the playoffs before falling to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup finals.
Sharpen your pencils, whip out your calculators and break down the schedule to see which seven wins are available. Good luck. Buffalo's shutout loss at home to Carolina certainly didn't help the cause, but it hardly ruined its chances of reaching the postseason. The Sabres still control their own playoff destiny.
The five other teams looking for playoff action are the Rangers, Carolina, New Jersey, Toronto and Atlanta. New Jersey and Atlanta are six points back. Toronto is four points back and Carolina remained two behind after the Maple Leafs' 3-1 victory Wednesday night. The Sabres have a game in hand on Carolina, Toronto and the Rangers. New Jersey has played one fewer game than Buffalo.
Buffalo has a critical stretch beginning March 25 in which it plays Florida, New Jersey, Toronto and the Rangers in a span of six nights. A streak either way during that week alone could determine if they reach the postseason for the fourth time in six years or miss the playoffs for the sixth time in nine seasons.
Remember, the first tiebreaker in the final standings is the number of victories in regulation and overtime, excluding wins in shootouts. New Jersey, for example, had 30 wins after taking away their three victories in shootouts. Buffalo and the Rangers each had 29. It could come into play when the regular season is completed.
"It's been the playoffs, it's been do or die since December," Sabres winger Thomas Vanek said. "Every game is big for us. Win or lose, you put it behind you and shoot for the next two points the next time."
The good news for the Sabres: They have six games against teams currently below them in the standings, starting with the Thrashers. If they can beat the teams beneath them and pull two points from the teams ahead of them, particularly the Rangers, they would get the seven victories, or 14 points, Ruff figured were needed.
Two of their final three games are against Tampa Bay and Philly, both of which could have their playoff positions already settled going into the final week. The regular-season finale is against Columbus, which has struggled since the trade deadline and could be running for the golf course going into the last game.
Now, the bad news: Their three games against the Devils this season were played in the first five weeks. The Devils are behind the Sabres in the standings, but their game March 26 is no gimme. New Jersey has been the NHL's best team in the second half, going 23-3-2 in its last 28 games while allowing two or fewer goals in 17 straight contests.
The Sabres' strength of schedule is third-toughest among the six teams around them with only New Jersey and Atlanta having more difficult opponents ahead. The Devils play five of their last six games at home, where they are 18-14-3. The Sabres play five of their next seven at home, where they are 15-16-3.
Buffalo is 2-3-0 against Montreal, 1-2-0 against Florida and 1-1-1 against Carolina. The Sabres are 3-2-0 against the Leafs, but they have lost the last two meetings. As well as the Sabres have played since Jan. 1, they still have lost three of their last five games going into Saturday's matchup with Les Thrash.
"We have 12 more really important games," rookie winger Tyler Ennis said. "Our focus is on the homestretch."