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To be in elite class, Sabres must beat the elite

The Sabres definitely have to be careful how they view the upbeat second half of their season. There’s no question there’s been culture change and players have bought in and grasped Dan Bylsma’s structured system much more the last couple of months. First periods got better and so did the home record, Friday’s Fan Appreciation Night dud aside.

For the season, the team won seven games and got points an NHL-high 12 times when trailing after two periods. That’s a stat you have to love. But the trick here going forward is to make sure it’s not all fool’s gold.

The Sabres’ 7-4-4 March was their best month in nearly three years but it featured wins over exactly no playoff teams. The vanquished were Toronto (twice), Carolina (twice), Calgary, Ottawa and Winnipeg.

Since beating Minnesota and Washington in mid-January, the Sabres entered Saturday’s game in Brooklyn with just two of their next 16 wins over playoff teams. And neither were at home, with the conquests coming Feb. 26 in San Jose and April 2 in New York.

Now, maybe the first step truly comes from beating teams at the bottom near your level. But GM Tim Murray, while happy with his team’s progress, was clearly underwhelmed at times Friday while talking about the club during his final weekly radio appearance of the season. It’s easy to see why.

The Sabres entered Saturday night’s game against the Islanders just 8-18-3 against the East’s top eight, and you’re not making the playoffs unless you can beat playoff teams in your own conference. It’s a little bit odd when you consider Buffalo’s 5-7-4 record against playoff teams from the West. What it all means is this club has a lot of work to do to make the hard transition from the 80-point range to playoff team next season.

Look at how Columbus got fooled last year by its 15-1-1 finish that turned into an 0-7 start and the firing of coach Todd Richards. Look at what’s going on in Vancouver, where the Canucks were on a nine-game skid to the bottom of the league standing and suddenly beat Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose in succession last week.

The Canucks are going to get a top-5 pick and need some serious retooling as their lineup ages. Most outsiders realize that, but captain Henrik Sedin went public to make sure management was on the same wavelength.

“I think we have to be really careful to evaluate our team based on the last five, 10 games of the season,” Sedin told Vancouver reporters last week. “I’ve seen that mistake from other teams. You go into next year thinking you’ve got a good shot at it. We’ve got to remember we’re playing teams getting ready for the playoffs and I don’t see them putting their full, full effort into it.”

The Sabres’ situation is a little different. They didn’t really run into too many playoff teams taking a night off. They started to find ways to beat teams you would think they should be beating. Next year, they have to find a way to better compete with the elite that they’d like to pass.

Doan’s son a tanker

The changes to the rules in the draft lottery have ended the automatic gifts of tanking but they still don’t do enough. Fans in places like Vancouver are still left to wonder if they should bemoan their team’s victories and Leafs fans finally seemed to be OK with losing during last week’s home stinker against Columbus. Air Canada Centre patrons had not gone all First Niagara Center circa 2015 on their team until that one.

Fans should never root against their teams in this corner’s view, regardless of the draft situation. But their feelings of hopelessness turning into reward causes this behavior. Coyotes captain Shane Doan knows about this from last year and again this season as Arizona’s first-half run got it away from the Auston Matthews sweepstakes in a year many of its fans hoped it could be right in the race.

“The second you start convincing someone to cheer against you, you’re one step closer to losing them as a fan,” Doan told the Arizona Republic last week.

Doan said last year’s McEichel-driven slog to the finish with the Sabres impacted him personally as even his 13-year-old son Josh became a turncoat.

“Until very recently, he would be physically upset when we lost, and it’d break your heart,” he said. “And I remember him cheering after games, being mad, but being happy we lost, cheering against us. And it was awful, and I hated it and I thought it was the stupidest thing in the world because here’s a guy who’s the most passionate Coyotes fan cheering against us.”

What does Doan want? The much talked-about system of a team getting rewarded for winning. As soon as a club gets eliminated from playoff contention, start tallying its points going forward. The team with the most gets the top pick and thus winning at all times is incentivized.

“It’s been mentioned to a few people at the league and the amazing part is everyone’s response is, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea,’” Doan said. “But it never goes anywhere.”

It should. Making the lottery about the top three picks helped some with tanking. This kind of thinking would help a lot more.

Bruins baffling in shootout

Has Claude Julien lost his mind? The results of the season aside, I could fire the Bruins coach just for the way he handled Tuesday’s 2-1 shootout loss to Carolina alone. In a skills session with a crucial extra point available, Julien’s team lost, 1-0, and he did not use 36-goal scorer Brad Marchand – in a shootout that went five rounds.

“I can answer 20 questions here or I can give you one thing,” a defiant Julien said after. “It’s an inability to finish and that’s the main thing here for tonight. Nothing more.”

Well, there’s a lot more to it. Julien backed into that old coach bromide about Marchand being 0 for 3 in shootouts in his career. Of course, he used defenseman Torey Krug in the shootout – and he hadn’t scored a goal in a game since December.

Said Marchand: “I’m going to do whatever the team asks me to do, regardless of what that is. I’m just going to try and play my role.”

Around the boards

• Thomas Vanek won’t be in the lineup when the Wild start the playoffs this week after taking a cross-check to the ribs on March 29. But if he was healthy, there’s a chance he would simply be a scratch anyway after the worst season of his career.

Vanek played 74 games this year but his 18 goals are the fewest of his career, and his 23 assists are his fewest for a full season. He had started fast with 10 goals and 19 points over the first 22 games but couldn’t maintain anywhere close to that pace. At 32, next year is the final season of Vanek’s three-year, $19.5 million deal with the Wild.

• There will be a lot of changes next year in Ottawa. Coach Dave Cameron’s job appears to be in jeopardy and Bryan Murray may cede the GM post to Pierre Dorion. Longtime defenseman Chris Phillips, who didn’t play this season after back surgery, could be headed into retirement. He came on the ice in uniform to take what might have been a final skate with his teammates after the home finale Thursday against Florida.

• Nazem Kadri’s season ended with a four-game suspension and a team-high total of 45 points for the Leafs. That’s the lowest for any Toronto scoring leader since George Armstrong had 44 points in 1956-57 while playing just 54 of the 70 games.

• The Ducks have the highest goal differential from game 41 (now the halfway point) to the end of the season of any team in the NHL’s expansion era dating to 1967. They languished at just 1.85 goals in the first 41 games and have scored 3.41 since then, a difference of 1.56 per game.

Second on the list? The 1970-71 expansion Sabres at 1.29. The team that saw Gilbert Perreault score a then-rookie record 38 goals averaged 2.17 through game 41 and 3.46 in the final 37 of that season.

• Tuesday was a fun night for this corner to be in New Jersey’s Prudential Center as the Devils honored longtime Bergen Record beat writer Tom Gulitti on his last game covering the team before moving to an job in Washington, D.C. When I departed the press room, Gulitti was the last one left as he was still penning his classy farewell post to his blog at named “Fire and Ice”

And apparently, the hockey gods send messages in strange ways. When Gulitti left the building for the last time, he tweeted a picture of his satellite radio from inside his car. Said Gulitti: “This is crazy: My car when I turned it on to go home: ‘Fire and Ice’ Pat Benatar.’”


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