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As Sabres clinch dubious NHL record, they're undaunted by the task ahead

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Sabres Sharks

Buffalo Sabres head coach Don Granato talks to his team.

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RALEIGH, N.C. – The Buffalo Sabres aren't going to the playoffs again this season. No shocker there. It was clear by Christmas that was going to be the ultimate result of this season.

And the fact they set an NHL record late Wednesday night by missing the postseason for the 11th straight season didn't rock the franchise to its core. It was an expected scenario. What has been a pleasant surprise is the way the club is pushing forward through the dog days of another lost season.

Sabres General Manager Kevyn Adams has dismissed any futility talk all season, pointing out that he wasn't in his post until June of 2020. Adams insists it's full speed ahead and the record is not some sort of organizational albatross.

"You can't let things like that affect you," Sabres coach Don Granato said before Thursday's game in PNC Arena against the Carolina Hurricanes. "I would never allow my emotions to go towards something that I don't have control over. There's too much to be preoccupied by. I love my job, and there's a lot of excitement to move forward. So anything in the past, I don't even think of it."

Carolina coach Rod Brind'Amour, the captain of the Hurricanes' 2006 Stanley Cup champions and a teammate of Adams with that club, said he has stayed in regular contact with the Buffalo GM this season. Adams has expressed optimism to him about the Sabres' path.

"He feels good about the process and he's got good people in place," Brind'Amour said. "He's like, 'OK, we're just making sure every step we take is the right one.' They've got great young talent now and now it's just making sure you keep adding to that. You say be patient and he's being realistic, but I know he wants to win."

After a surprising 5-2-1 October start, any thoughts the Sabres had about being an upstart playoff contender this season were put to rest as injuries and Covid-19 absences conspired to leave them with a combined 5-15-4 record in November and December. They were officially eliminated from the wild-card race Wednesday night by Washington when the Capitals held off Tampa Bay, 4-3.

The Sabres have now put together 11 consecutive non-playoff seasons, breaking the mark of 10 set by the Florida Panthers in 2012 and equaled by the Edmonton Oilers in 2017. Their last playoff series was a seven-game defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011, which came two months after Terry Pegula purchased the team from Tom Golisano. The last game in that series was on April 26, 2011 – and Friday will mark 4,000 days since that 5-2 defeat. 

The Sabres are now tied with NFL's New York Jets for the third-longest playoff drought in the four major sports. MLB's Seattle Mariners lead the way at 20 years, since losing to the New York Yankees in the 2001 American League Championship Series. The Mariners are followed by the NBA's Sacramento Kings (2006). Then come the Jets, Sabres and Philadelphia Phillies, who have missed for 10 straight years.

This year, however, a funny thing has happened while playing out the string of another losing season. The Sabres entered Thursday's rematch with the Hurricanes 10-4-3 in their last 17 games -- and their .676 points percentage over that stretch was fifth in the East and eighth in the NHL.

"It's just the mindset that we still are here to win games," winger Zemgus Girgensons, the longest-tenured Sabre at 535 games, said following the morning skate. "The guys are not quitting where in the past, probably at this time, the wins don't really matter, you just kind of went through the motions. This is more building for the next year for the young guys, just to keep that win mentality."

Since March 1, the Sabres have seven wins over current playoff teams and two against Vegas and Vancouver, teams trying to push into a spot.

"A lot teams talk a lot about the presence of veteran players, and maybe that they can show players the way," Granato said. "But nobody talks about playing great teams. It's the exact same effect. They're showing you how to play the game hard, intense, with detail. They'll hold you accountable for detail that you might not have in your game. So it's the exact same dynamic you want."

"The wins against the bigger teams are huge mentally. ... It gives you a lot of confidence," Girgensons said. "And just shows that we literally can play with any team when we execute the system. It's been way different. Even if you look at the trade deadline moves, Kevyn keeping the guys around here that you could have sent for some stuff just to keep the core in and still try to win games. Not just throwing away this last part of the season. I think it's huge. I like what I've been seeing."

Brind'Amour said he's always respected the Sabres' top talent. But some of those players better understand how Granato and Adams want them to play.

"That comes with practice, the coach drilling home the same things over and over and over," he said. "Part of it is hard when you're not getting results to believe in what you're doing and what you're talking about. But when you start seeing the turnaround and the light bulb goes off, you're on to something."

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