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Mike Harrington: Home is where the Sabres' playoffs hopes will rekindle or fade away

Maybe what lies ahead for the Buffalo Sabres makes or breaks their path to the playoffs. But there's no guarantee a seven-game homestand will do that on its own, especially if it gets split roughly down the middle. What it is likely to do with more certainty is spin General Manager Jason Botterill's strategy for the trade deadline.

The setting is this: The Sabres host Patrick Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks Friday night at 7 in KeyBank Center. It will be their first home game since Jan. 12 and will open a seven-game run downtown that lasts through Feb. 15 and equals the longest one in franchise history.

The only other time the Sabres have played seven in a row at home was from Feb. 20-March 2, 1997, in the building's first season. Buffalo went 4-2-1 in that stretch en route to a season that ended with a loss to Philadelphia in the second round of the playoffs.

The Sabres entered Thursday's play three points behind Columbus for the East's last wild-card slot, pending the Blue Jackets' game in Antarctica, er, Winnipeg. (An aside here: If you're feeling overwhelmed by our cold weather, it was minus 35 Fahrenheit in The Peg on Wednesday).

The Sabres went just 2-3 in their five road games since we last saw them in the 716 but their play has been trending upward since that horrific 7-2 loss at Edmonton on Jan. 14.

In those five games, they're going at a 55 percent Corsi rate both overall and at 5 on 5, and have averaged 34 shots on goal per game. But they've only posted a shooting percentage of 8.2 percent, their power play remains miserable and their passing and decisions in the defensive zone continue to prompt rub-your-eyes levels of disbelief.

The Sabres showed resilience in the overtime win in Calgary and had good legs coming off the break in Tuesday's win in Columbus. One-goal losses in Vancouver and Dallas were disappointing in that they had the better of the offensive zone play, especially in third periods, but were stymied by giveaways from their defense that directly led to goals.

Slow start, no goal set stage for Sabres' shutout loss in Dallas

The Sabres took Thursday off to make the trek home from Dallas in the wake of this week's blizzard. They left for Columbus Monday, just in time to miss all the bad weather, and have to hope their timing at home is again going to be fortuitous.

The Sabres are 14-6-3 at KeyBank and the only team in the East with fewer regulation home losses is Tampa Bay at 20-5-0. The upcoming schedule is not daunting either.

The homestand lists Chicago, followed by Minnesota, Carolina, Detroit, Winnipeg, the New York Islanders and New York Rangers. Minnesota, Winnipeg and the Islanders are currently in playoff spots while the other four teams are not. Carolina, however, has beaten the Sabres seven straight times, a streak that's long overdue to end and is the longest for the Hurricanes' franchise since the Hartford Whalers bounced Buffalo seven straight times in 1986.

There are 14 points available in the seven games and a good number for the Sabres to get would be 10. It may be asking a lot, however, of a club that's just 8-13-4 in its last 25 games after going 17-6-2 in the first 25. And one that hasn't won even two games in a row since Dec. 11-13. But that's where the Sabres are at right now.

The objectives here are pretty simple: Pile up points at home, stay in the playoff race and maybe get a little help from the GM.

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Home, Sweet Home

The longest homestands in Buffalo Sabres history

Seven games
Dates                               W-L-OT/T
Jan. 20 - Feb. 2, 1997            4-2-1
Six games
Dates                                   W-L-OT/T
Dec. 23, 1986-Jan. 4, 1987       3-2-1
March 20-April 1, 1994             4-1-1
Feb. 9-23, 1997                           4-0-2
Feb. 11-21, 1999                          3-0-3
Dec. 30, 2005-Jan. 14, 2006   3-2-1
Feb. 7-22, 2007                          5-0-1
Feb. 16-26, 2011                         2-3-1
March 10-23, 2018                    1-4-1
Source: Buffalo News research

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Last year, of course, the season was long gone by the deadline and Botterill's only task was to get rid of Evander Kane after he decided the winger didn't fit his long-term plan. The deal was consummated minutes before the stroke of 3 p.m. on Deadline Day, and the haul was unimpressive at the time but became acceptable when Kane re-signed with the Sharks and thus brought back a first-round pick for Buffalo this June.

This is an entirely different deadline for Botterill. He needs to be adding to his team, both for now and the future. And it would be nice if he didn't wait until Feb. 25 to do it.

The Sabres need help up front and could likely use another serviceable veteran defenseman. The only unrestricted free agents who could become rentals elsewhere are Jeff Skinner and Jason Pominville. A trade of Skinner would be a white flag to negotiations on a long-term deal and largely to the season, a colossal failure that would land so squarely at Botterill's feet that it doesn't seem plausible that could happen.

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A trade of Pominville with shared salary could get the Sabres some room on their books and the lineup for this year by opening a spot for a Rochester forward like C.J. Smith, Victor Olofsson or Alex Nylander. That seems like more of a possibility.

For now, I'll even succumb to the old one-game-at-a-time theory. The pride of South Buffalo remains a superstar, but Kane's Blackhawks are among the dregs of the NHL this year, with Father Time damaging the defense and GM Stan Bowman's post-2015 Cup moves causing even more trouble all over the roster.

The Sabres broke a 12-game losing streak to Chicago that dated to 2009 with a 5-3 win here last March and they have to make sure to get two points again. That would be a good starting point.

Buffalo is in this race with Columbus, Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Pittsburgh, the Islanders and Washington. Only Tampa Bay is out of reach. There's no reason the Sabres shouldn't stay in it for the duration, have Botterill augment the roster -- whether from within or outside -- and thus give us meaningful March hockey for the first time since 2012.

Get things going in the right direction Friday night and the Sabres can bring the fans back into games like they were in November during their 10-game winning streak. The Blackhawks' veterans certainly know how impactful a home crowd can be. Winnipeg rates as one of the wackier places in the league as well.

That's what Buffalo can be again. This has been a rough two months but the Sabres have a big chance to spark a turnaround. The schedule maker has given them a huge assist. If they don't take advantage, they'll have no one but themselves to blame.

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