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Mike Harrington: Strong showings against Tampa no consolation for sliding Sabres

Say this for the Buffalo Sabres: They might be the last team the Tampa Bay Lightning hope to see come the first round of the playoffs in April. If the Sabres can somehow sneak in.

The Bolts have some flat-out stupid statistics -- headlined by a 35-8-2 record. And although they're 2-1 against the Sabres this year after Saturday's 5-3 victory in KeyBank Center, they've been left with plenty of food for thought.

The Sabres, meanwhile, have a lot to ponder Sunday as they make the long flight west Sunday to Edmonton to start their annual Western Canada road trip Monday night. The euphoria of November is long gone, replaced by serious question marks that have a cloud over this season.

Now the Sabres have a new dilemma: They won't see their home ice again until Feb. 1 and they're out of a playoff position for the first time in more than two months.

It was Nov. 27 -- 20 games ago -- that Buffalo beat San Jose to improve to 17-6-2 with its 10th straight win. The Lightning, meanwhile, suffered a 3-1 loss to Anaheim to fall to 17-7-1. According to Elias Sports, the Sabres were the first team in NHL history to go from last overall one season to first overall 25 games into the next one.

Since then? The Sabres are 6-10-4 with nine of the losses by one or two goals. And with Montreal's 3-0 win over Colorado Saturday night, they dropped out of what looked like a sure playoff spot.

The Lightning, meanwhile, have gone 18-1-1 in the last 20 to make mincemeat of the Presidents' Trophy race.

"We're in these games. We just have to find a way to get over the hump and win some of these games," said Buffalo defenseman Marco Scandella. "I feel like tonight again we played a great game for 55 minutes. The last five minutes. we have to find a way to get better. It's just not good enough."

The Sabres looked lost Friday night in Carolina but played with a lot more purpose and passion on Saturday. And it's the third time they've shown their wares pretty well this year against Tampa Bay.

Things didn't start out well. Brayden Point scored after just 26 seconds, the Lightning's breakout player of the season clearly making a quick commentary on losing the Last Men In vote for the All-Star Game to Jeff Skinner.

But that was just about all you heard from the Lightning in the first period. The Sabres were hard on the puck the rest of the way in forging a 2-1 lead and getting some help from backup goalie Louis Domingue, who flat-out whiffed with his glove on Sam Reinhart's shot from long range and didn't get much of a piece of Tage Thomposon's soft shot on a 2-on-1 with Zemgus Girgensons.

The Sabres took another lead in the third when Scandella converted a super Jason Pominville feed. But Tampa responded 23 seconds later, with Nikita Kucherov taking advantage of Lawrence Pilut's charity off a Steven Stamkos feed.

The end was a sour one. A Jack Eichel elbowing penalty that led to a Stamkos goal. The fans in the building were enraged and social media erupted, in part by what was perceived as Ryan McDonagh's embellishment. Eichel was diplomatic.

"If you look at it again, I don't lift my arm. I don't move my elbow," Eichel said. "I'm really just poking at the puck at my stick to try to avoid him honestly, to try to get the puck. Incidental contact. I don't even really know how much I clipped him. Refs have to make a decision at that point. It's tough on them too so I don't want to blame anyone in that situation.

"Obviously I don't want to put our team in the box. Stamkos gets that goal and it's frustrating when you're sitting behind the glass watching that happen."

The Lightning are the Stanley Cup favorites by a big margin, not just because they can draw calls at crunch time. But the Sabres have been right there with them in every meeting this year. That's important because the Sabres would almost certainly be looking at a first-round matchup with the Bolts if they finished in the second wild-card spot.

That's of course if they sneak in for the first time since 2011. Which probably will take some intervention from GM Jason Botterill to get this club some help at center.

"They've really built a really good nucleus," Bolts coach Jon Cooper said of the Sabres. "In years past, you used to come into Buffalo and think, 'OK, there's a good chance we're getting two points.' Well, that's not the case anymore. They compete hard, they play with structure and that's what happens. In a league that's got so much parity and is so close, they're in there and good on them."

The Sabres have played three tight games against Tampa Bay this season. Two have been tough losses. Like a lot of things lately, something went wrong at a key time.

Another third-period lead vaporized. It would have been a great win to have in the bank heading on the road. Didn't happen. Now things only get harder. And the questions get deeper.

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