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Five-point gap in race more than a stretch

What's five points?

Five points was the difference between 11th place and eighth place in the Eastern Conference after the Sabres' 2-1 shootout win over the Bruins on Friday night in First Niagara Center. Do the math, and it's a few more victories for Buffalo and a few more losses for the teams ahead of them over 61 games.

Five points didn't look like much with the NHL roaring into Turn Four and heading toward the finish line of the regular season. Anaheim had a miserable start but made up 16 points during a 23-game span in the Western Conference. The Sabres have made up five points and four conference spots over the past week, so another five over their final 21 games and a spot in the playoffs appears well within their grasp.

It's nothing until you take a closer look and examine what needs to happen for them to wiggle through heavy traffic and come away without a dent while the others take turns crashing into the wall. And that's when the five-point deficit in the standings starts looking like much more.

Forget about fans being optimistic vs. media being pessimistic and let's instead be realistic with a quarter of the season remaining. Standing before the Sabres now is a much taller order than the challenge they treated like a speed bump a year ago.

Sure, it's reasonable for them to make up the ground. An 8-3-2 stretch makes you believe Team Tease can storm back as it did last year, but pulling it off again isn't going to be so easy. If this continues, they can say goodbye to backup goalies such as Tuukka Rask playing against them on a regular basis.

Buffalo was in ninth place and two points behind Carolina for eighth through 61 games last season. The Sabres were chasing one team and finished with a 14-4-3 record, including a four-game winning streak. They didn't clinch a playoff berth until the second-last game and were history after seven playoff games with Philadelphia.

See, their problem isn't the five points but the three teams directly in front of them and another slot going to the winner of the Southeast Division. Winnipeg, Florida, Washington and Toronto play one another nine times between now and the end of the season. One team is earning two points in every meeting, and there's a possibility the other could earn one.

Basically, every time they play each other, the Sabres are incapable of making up ground against the winner. It makes coming back much more difficult. The Sabres have played well lately, but they're going to need to play better. They were outclassed in the third period Friday but were able to hang on and win in a shootout. It was another good win, certainly, but they're inviting trouble if it continues.

By the way, four teams behind them in the conference race -- Tampa Bay, the Islanders, Carolina and Montreal -- trailed by two points or less.

The Sabres play the New York Rangers tonight in Madison Square Garden, which is no walk in Central Park with the first-place Blueshirts sitting on a 19-7-2 record at home. The trade deadline is Monday, and there doesn't appear to be an abundance of available players who can help them with so many teams still in the race.

And then it becomes tougher.

Buffalo has a four-game road trip immediately after the deadline that will take them to Anaheim, San Jose, Vancouver and Winnipeg. The Ducks have been one of the NHL's hottest teams for weeks. The other three teams were atop their respective divisions and had a combined record of 55-25-9 at home.

The Sabres' game against Winnipeg could be critical but only if they play well in their first three stops. Buffalo's reward for the heavy travel is three games in four nights, including one game in Boston and another in Ottawa. Buffalo has two games waiting for them in Florida and finishes the season on the road against Philadelphia and Boston.

Five points? To me, it still looks like five miles.

email: blgeason@buffnews.com