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Opponents' hot stretches are pushing Sabres further out of playoff race

The Buffalo Sabres are 5-3 in January with a power play converting at 28.6% and a penalty kill going at 85%, both figures ranking in the NHL's top 10. In Linus Ullmark, they have a starting goalie ranking fourth in save percentage for the month at .932. Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart are running at more than a point a game for the month and Rasmus Dahlin is nearly at that mark as well.

The Sabres are 8-3 in their last 11 games in KeyBank Center, dating to Thanksgiving weekend. They are seventh in the league for the season in points percentage in their home rink at .705.

So given those numbers, how in the world are they completely losing touch in the playoff race?

Check the standings. The Sabres are just about sunk for a postseason spot yet again at the All-Star break, sitting 10 points out of both third place in the Atlantic Division and the final Eastern Confernence wild-card slot.

Plenty has to do with the team's abhorrent play on the road. At 8-14-4, the Sabres are tied for 26th in the NHL in road wins, tied for 24th in points, tied for 25th in points percentage and are 30th on the penalty kill. They're also in the bottom 10 in the league in goals for (22nd) and goals against (24th).

A bigger issue is what's going on elsewhere. The Sabres are trying to chase down Florida and Columbus, both of which entered Wednesday with the longest winning streaks in the league.

Florida completed a road back-to-back with wins Monday at Minnesota and Tuesday in Chicago to get its sixth straight win and pull within one point of Tampa Bay for second place. Columbus beat Winnipeg, 4-3, on Wednesday to win its sixth straight and ninth in the last 11.

The Sabres are 3-0 against Florida this year but it's proven meaningless. With only one game left against the Panthers, it seems like the wild-card is Buffalo's only shot. Especially when you consider the Sabres have two games apiece left against Carolina, Columbus and Philadelphia.

The Sabres' key hopes lie in the 10 games immediately after the break, which include nine at home. And they need help out of town. Lots of it. Here's a look at what's going on around the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break:

Atlantic Division

The race: Boston has an eight-point lead on Tampa Bay, but its seasonlong hold on the top spot feels tenuous in part because the Lightning have three games in hand. Boston is now dealing with a concussion for goalie Tuukka Rask and its huge troubles continue after 60 minutes (NHL-high 12 OT/shootout losses and league-worst 0-7 shootout record). Florida is nine points back with two games in hand. And sheer panic is bound to develop in Toronto, where the Leafs are fourth in the division (four points behind Florida) and three out in the wild-card hunt in a season for which they were talking Stanley Cup and got a big initial bump from firing coach Mike Babcock and replacing him with Sheldon Keefe.

Key teams

Boston: Brad Marchand has 21 goals and 65 points but is stuck in a brutal slump with only three goals in 26 games. He created a blooper film for the ages with his shootout faux pas last week in Philadelphia, barely touching the puck and skating over it to create a failed attempt. Tweeted Marchand on Friday: "ATTENTION...hands have been lost or stolen, if found please return to TD Garden...thanks."

Tampa Bay: The Lightning are another team that is 8-2 in its last 10. They are 12-2 in its last 14 after finally figuring things out with a 10-game winning streak that started just before Christmas. It will get tested out of the break with a four-game road trip to Dallas, Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose, and that opens a road run that covers nine of the next 14 games.

"We've been pretty happy for the most part how we played," coach Jon Cooper said when the Bolts reversed a 4-1 deficit on New Year's Eve and beat the Sabres, 6-4. "We overachieved a little bit last year and our point total (128) was a little bit inflated to how we were playing. It's really quite the contrary this year: We're better than our point total shows."

Florida: Joel Quenneville won his return game to Chicago on Tuesday and is going to start getting Coach of the Year consideration as the Panthers are thriving even as $70 million goalie Sergei Bobrovsky struggles (3.24/.898). The big surprise is how the Panthers lead the league in goals for (183) and goals per game (3.67). They have seven players in double figures, led by a breakout year from Evgenii Dadonov, who has 23 goals and is already just five shy of his career high. They also are benefiting from the under-the-radar free agent signings of Noel Acciari (18 goals) and Brett Connolly (16).

Toronto: Defensemen Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin are out long-term with foot injuries from shotblocking and an already suspect blueline is now super thin. The goaltending is a big issue as starter Frederik Andersen (2.89/.909) got Bronx cheers during Saturday's 6-2 loss to Chicago and Michael Hutchinson is not an NHL-quality backup (3-7-1, 3.83/.885).

The Leafs spent Saturday morning talking about their vacation plans for the break, including a group of them golfing at Augusta, and were in a 3-0 hole nine minutes into the game. This loss came a few days after an 8-4 defeat in Florida that included some fun in the sun in the days before.

Said Keefe after the Chicago loss: "Reality checks come. I thought that we were an immature team down in Florida. We were an immature team here today. That is how we are approaching these things. We are not performing. We are not playing to any level of discipline or consistency."

Wild cards

The race: Third place is uncertain in both divisions so you have to keep an eye on a team like Florida or the New York Islanders dropping back into this pack. Columbus, Carolina, Philadelphia and Toronto are currently the top wild-card teams, with Buffalo, Montreal and the New York Rangers still trying to figure out if they're actually in the hunt.

Key teams

Columbus: John Tortorella is going to get a lot of Coach of the Year votes if this keeps up. No Bobrovsky, no Artemi Panarin, no Matt Duchene and All-Star goalie Joonas Korpisalo is hurt. And they just keep rolling. The Jackets are 15-2-2 in their last 19 games and 25-year-old Latvian Elvis Merzlikins is doing his best Jordan Binnington impression. Since taking over for Korpisalo, Merzlikins entered Wednesday 8-2, 1.55/.955 with three shutouts in the last four games.

Carolina: The Canes are 17-8-1 at home and have a plus-27 goal differential overall, but now they're dealing with a long-term leg injury to defenseman Dougie Hamilton. On one hand, you wonder how much they fall back. On the other, they bring former captain Justin Williams out of retirement and "Mr. Game 7" scores a shootout winner in his first NHL game since May.

Philadelphia: The Flyers looked ripe. They were 1-4-1 and goalie Carter Hart was hurt. That was a team a lot of people thought they could catch. Hasn't happened. Philly is 4-1 in its last five and Brian Elliott pitched a shutout Tuesday over Pittsburgh after allowing just one goal in a home win against Los Angeles on Saturday. That's 12 wins for the backup goalie. Teams like the Sabres and Leafs would love that.

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