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Parched: Buffalo sports fans yearn for a sip of playoff tonic

Where's Dick Vitale when you need him? Because it's Drought City around here, baby.

The Bills' absence from the NFL playoffs is 16 years and counting, astonishing for the parity-fueled NFL. The Sabres have similar issues going and the current regime is similarly saying to judge its merits by the current day, even though the fans feel the weight of history.

In the spring, GM Tim Murray corrected me to note he's only been here since 2014 when I asked about the franchise's dismal playoff record. Point taken. And although the Murray plan seems like it's continuing to move in the right direction, fans need to see some more results.

When it comes to the Sabres, owner Terry Pegula clearly wants you to believe history only begins in 2011 when he arrived. Again, I get the point. But history isn't kind to this franchise either.

The Sabres' last playoff appearance was their seven-game loss to Philadelphia in 2011, and only Edmonton (2006) and Carolina (2009) have gone longer without joining the spring party. The Sabres haven't won a series since beating the New York Rangers in 2007, and only five teams have been waiting longer.

Drought City

Last playoff appearance
Edmonton 2006
Carolina 2009
Buffalo 2011
Arizona 2012

The Sabres insist they're poised to get back there but they've done the easy part, tanking to 54 points to get Jack Eichel and improving in one year to 81. It's much tougher to go from 81 to, say, the 95 that coach Dan Bylsma openly spoke of over the summer as a goal for this club.

April after April, the Sabres have meekly packed their equipment and gone home with nary a playoff series to battle through. Since 2014, for example, the Chicago Blackhawks have been in eight series. So have the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers.

In the last 14 seasons, dating all the way to 2001, the Sabres have been in eight playoff series. They've missed the playoffs entirely in 10 of those 14 years. That's a lot of time off.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 22: Tyler Ennis #63 of the Buffalo Sabres celebrates with teammates after scoring the game winning goal in overtime in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center on April 22, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Buffalo Sabres defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4 to 3. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Tyler Ennis  celebrates with teammates after scoring the winning goal in overtime in Game Five of the 2011 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Philadelphia Flyers. (Getty Images)

Tyler Ennis knows the feeling. The longest-serving Sabres made his debut late in the 2009-10 season and went to the playoffs in his first two years, for the first-round losses to Boston and Philadelphia. He thought he'd be going to the playoffs every year. His wait is bearing down on six years.

"When you don't make the playoffs, it just becomes focus. You have to take advantage of that time," Ennis said. "You have to focus on the goal at hand. The summers become about getting stronger and developing the mentality of getting better ever day."

The Sabres haven't won a playoff game since April 24, 2011, the night Ennis scored a rebound in overtime to win Game Five in Philadelphia. They lost Game Six in OT at home two days later when Ville Leino's winning goal prodded Pegula to spend far too much money on him three months later. They were blown out in Game Seven in Philadelphia and haven't been back.

"I think about that overtime goal all the time," Ennis said. "It was a great moment for me at the time and had the team in good position. You think about the playoffs a lot obviously but it's getting exciting for us to know we're getting closer."

One of newest Sabres, free-agent signee Kyle Okposo, knows the feeling too. For six full seasons, not counting the 2013 lockout campaign, the New York Islanders never eclipsed 80 points for a full season. Okposo played for five of those teams. They weren't close to the playoffs. The Sabres, remember, quickly got to 81 last year.

Last playoff series win
Winnipeg Never*
Columbus Never**
Florida 1996
Toronto 2004
Edmonton 2006
Buffalo 2007

*entered NHL as Atlanta Thrashers in 1999
**entered NHL in 2000

Then the Isles posted back-to-back 100-point campaigns and broke through last spring with a first-round win over the Florida Panthers on John Tavares' goal in double overtime of Game Six.

"That was pretty cool, especially for guys that were there a long time," Okposo said. "It meant a lot to us. To finish it and win a playoff round for a franchise that had not won one in 23 years was incredibly special. We understood the history and what the fans were going through.

"And once you get to the playoffs once, you don't ever want to be out of it. You work extremely hard to get back to it. When you have a long summer, it gets old. You don't want to be sitting home watching hockey on TV in April and May."

There's plenty of talk these days about the Sabres' thin defense corps and curiosity about goalie Robin Lehner, who was good last year when he stayed healthy and has looked terrific this year as a slimmed-down version. With the influx of big names and prospects, it's easy to forget the Sabres need more offense. They've scored fewer than 200 goals (not counting shootout winners) for three straight seasons. In non-lockout years from 1970-2013, that happened just once.

The schedule is tough as well, with the Sabres too often playing back-to-backs against teams that are rested. The three-game Western Canada roadie that starts Sunday in Edmonton is a rugged one at such an early point in the season.

If the Sabres are serious about winning this year, the eight October games have to be an early defining stretch. That's because this team has specialized in slow starts in recent years and has been constantly chasing the season.

Over the last three years, Buffalo's October record is a hideous 8-27-2. Since 2010, it's 17-38-4. And none of that includes the 3-6-1 start to the 2013 lockout season, which opened on Jan. 20.

"That's a trap of a young team. You want to get your bearings but you need to be ready to go in our case right from Oct. 13," Okposo said. "Points in October count the same. We went through that on the Island with starts that weren't great and cost us later. We benefited a couple years from fast starts because we all know you'll have lulls but it's much better to not have that lull right at the beginning."

So what does it all mean? Well, I deserve to be a little cocky about predictions after picking the Sabres to go 35-35-12 in this space last season -- and then watching them finish 35-36-11.

There will be more improvement this year but the view here is that the playoff drought isn't going to be snapped until at least the spring of 2018. Lehner has to stay healthy. There are questions about defense, with or without Rasmus Ristolainen. The depth on the back end simply isn't there yet to sustain a playoff run.

Let's call it 40-32-10 for 90 points. That would be the Sabres' highest total since 2011 and another good step, albeit shy of the postseason. But mere improvement should no longer be the standard. We're awfully parched in these parts.

Somebody has to come up with a solution to all these droughts. And soon.

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