NEWARK, N.J. – The Buffalo Sabres were a 30th-place team each of the last two seasons, mired in the netherworld of the NHL standings. As they head into the final week and the final three games of this campaign, they have a tangible and realistic goal within their grasp.
No, it’s not the playoffs. The Sabres will be shut out of the postseason party for the fifth straight year and seventh time in nine seasons. But from the Walk Before You Run Department comes the following slice of numerology:
The Sabres enter Tuesday’s game against the New Jersey Devils with a 33-35-11 record for 77 points. If they go 2-0-1 in their final three games, they would finish 35-35-12. That would be 82 points in the 82-game schedule, or a points percentage of .500 that could push them up eight or nine slots in the standings from a year ago.
And that would make for quite a good-looking transition season.
(Some would be quick to say that would actually be a won-lost record of 35-47 but points percentage is what drives hockey coaches and statisticians alike. This is not a strict W-L like the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball. The Sabres would have exactly half of the 164 possible points for the season.)
“That would be huge,” center Ryan O’Reilly, who missed practice Tuesday with an undisclosed injury, said after Saturday’s 4-3 win in New York. “One thing we know here is you don’t just add one player, make a couple adjustments and you’re a contending team. You have to chip away at it and get better. So that’s a good goal for us.”
“It’s not where we’re trying to go but when you’re looking at where we’ve been, it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” added defenseman Josh Gorges. “We’re not there yet. We don’t want to count any chickens before they hatch. We have to take these last three games, do things the right way and we’ll see where we stand at the end of it.
“I definitely think this team has taken a step in the right direction. You look at the way we’ve played in the last two months and if we played this way all year, we’re in much more of a playoff position than we are now.”
The Sabres will finish the season with a home game Friday against Columbus and a road game Saturday at the New York Islanders. They need three points to forge a 26-point improvement over last season, which would be the third-largest in franchise history.
Of course, that comes with the caveat the team was set up to fail last year by a management group obsessed with getting the No. 1 pick in the draft. That didn’t materialize but the Sabres still landed Jack Eichel at No. 2 and he’s become a 20-goal man in his first season and the first Buffalo rookie to crack the 50-point mark since 1994.
The Sabres were 15-22-4 in the first half of the season and have improved to 18-13-7 in the second half, including 6-2-2 in their last 10 games. Their goal differential for the season, eliminating shootout winners, is minus-16. Last year, it was an astonishing minus-116.
“We had a tough start and we are really just getting it now,” said goaltender Chad Johnson. “We had a new coach, new faces and I think you are seeing it all come together. The chemistry, the compete we have, sort of buying into our system. Guys are more comfortable with that.”
“We’ve come a long way,” added first-year coach Dan Bylsma. “I maybe underestimated the distance we had to travel to get to that mentality where we thought we could win games. … We feel that’s the case right now. We’ve got that in our team.”
Look no further than the club’s road record. The Sabres are 17-17-5 away from First Niagara Center. Their record on the road the last two years combined? A hapless 17-59-6.
Bylsma said this year’s road record could be even better were it not for a couple of disheartening losses earlier in the season to returning Stanley Cup finalists Tampa Bay and Chicago. And there was last week’s shootout defeat in Pittsburgh in a game Buffalo led, 3-0, after the first period.
“There’s a few games out there, so we should be even better on the road,” he said. “But I do think it plays to the mentality of our team. We’ve shown we’re going to be a relentless team that keeps working, playing regardless of the situation.”
Indeed, there is no longer panic when games start to go awry. The Sabres nearly blew a pair of three-goal leads Saturday in Madison Square Garden but again got strong work from Johnson and got a clutch penalty kill of a two-minute, five-on-three situation late in the third period.
“Our details and the way we’re playing the system have really helped,” said winger Marcus Foligno. “We have a lot of belief in the older guys, a lot of belief in ‘Johnny.’ We have a lot of trust. The previous two years, it seemed we didn’t want to play an offensive game so you’re sitting there on defense a lot and you can’t do that against a team like the Rangers.
“We want to go out and win these next three games. It’s nice to see it turning and you can really see it now. We’re competing. We’re a hockey club that next year can really be a good hockey club. It starts now.”