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Sabres head to bye with no playoff race on the other side

It's a vastly different scenario for the Buffalo Sabres on their bye week this season.

There's no playoff push in the offing, only the wait to the Feb. 26 NHL trade deadline and what seems to be the inevitable trade of winger Evander Kane at some point before then.

The Sabres are 11-24-9 after Thursday night's 3-1 win over Columbus. They're last in the Eastern Conference with 31 points and here's an ugly reality: That's the same point total they had through 44 games in both of their tank seasons.

At this point, in 2013-14, Buffalo was 13-26-5. Through 44 games in 2014-15, the Sabres were 14-27-3, albeit in the middle of their 0-12 January.

Last year through 44 games? The record was 17-18-9 and the point total was 43.

The Sabres won't be together again until they practice on Wednesday in HarborCenter. It will be a week off between games, with the next faceoff on Thursday night in New York against the Rangers.

The NHL instituted a five-day bye week last season at the behest of the Players Association in exchange for the 3-on-3 tournament to become a fixture at the All-Star Game. Teams cannot practice during those five days. The byes were spread through the season from January to March and no heed was paid to teams coming off their break and playing teams that were still fully engaged in their schedules.

It proved a major challenge. Teams went only 8-14-4 in their first games after the bye if they played a team that was not resting, and the Sabres were one of the teams that faced a major disadvantage.

Buffalo, in fact, was sent West off its bye and reconvened for a sluggish practice in Denver on Feb. 24 with a record of 26-24-10. The Sabres were just six points out of the playoffs, in both the wild-card and Atlantic Division race. With 22 games remaining, it was a tough but not insurmountable task.

But reality quickly set in. The Sabres suffered a 5-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche the next night and disaster really struck on Feb. 26 in Glendale, Ariz. Buffalo had a 2-0 third-period lead but fell apart and suffered a 3-2 loss to the Coyotes on a goal with 19 seconds to play by Radim Vrbata.

Disaster in the desert: Sabres melt down in lost weekend

More than any other, that game doomed the season. The two games off the bye sent the Sabres on a 7-13-2 spiral to finish the schedule. They missed the playoffs by 17 points and that led to the firing of both General Manager Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma.

General managers implored the league to improve the schedule of the byes, and this season they are all centralized from Jan. 7-19. The Sabres, however, did not get the advantage of playing a team also coming off its break and will be facing much the same situation as last year.

Buffalo's trip to Madison Square Garden will be against a Rangers team in its fourth game in six days coming off its bye that ended Friday. The Rangers return to action Saturday afternoon against the New York Islanders, are in Pittsburgh Sunday and then host Philadelphia on Tuesday.

And, of course, the Sabres are nowhere near the playoff race. Only Arizona (10-27-6 for 26 points) is behind Buffalo in the NHL's overall standing and the Coyotes could pass the Sabres during their three games while the Sabres are idle.

Arizona played late Friday night against Edmonton and has a home-and-home series with San Jose Saturday and Tuesday.


The Sabres made it official Friday by returning goaltender Linus Ullmark and defenseman Brendan Guhle to Rochester. There is no bye coming for the Amerks, who have three games in the next four days, and the two players were expected to return to the AHL after Thursday's game.

The Amerks' upcoming busy stretch opened Friday night in Blue Cross Arena against Binghamton, moves to Syracuse on Saturday and returns home for a Monday matchup with Utica.

Ullmark made a career-high 44 saves for the Sabres Thursday, posting his first victory at the NHL level since 2015-16. Guhle got a two-game look with the Sabres and his assist on Kyle Okposo's goal Thursday night was his first NHL point.

Guhle's spot in the Buffalo lineup will likely be taken by Victor Antipin, who has been out since Dec. 19 with a combination of healthy scratches and a heavy bout with the flu.

Ullmark was up with the big club after Robin Lehner got drilled in the neck by a shot Sunday in Philadelphia. He's slated to represent the Amerks in the AHL All-Star Game Jan. 28-29 in Utica.

Ullmark's joy for the game lifts the Sabres to a win

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