The fans may be too busy celebrating the signing of Mario Williams to notice but the Buffalo Sabres are falling short in the NHL playoff race in typically heartbreaking fashion.
Not for them the 18-wheel drive straight off a cliff à la Toronto Maple Leafs. No, in a city defined by its broken sporting dreams over the years, the Sabres seem bound to lift the faithful’s hopes only to stop just short of fulfillment.
On Wednesday night, for example, the Sabres blew the lead three times against the Colorado Avalanche, the final time coming with less than two seconds to play in the third period. The game ended in a 5-4 shootout win for Colorado, which left the Sabres three points behind the Washington Capitals in the fight for the eighth and last playoff spot in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
Losing the chance for two points was bad enough for the Sabres. Letting a regulation win slip away was even worse. They have 33 wins but only 22 came in regulation, which is what counts as the first tiebreaker in the playoff race.
It was the second consecutive game in which the Sabres let a regulation win slip away. On Monday night, though, they managed to beat the Montreal Canadiens in overtime.
“It's really frustrating,” Sabres forward Tyler Ennis said. “You never want that to happen. For it to happen twice in a row is even more frustrating.”
Actually, the Sabres’ experience with overtime goes back further than the Montreal game. The win before that one also came in overtime. In fact, the last time the Sabres won in regulation time was back on Mar. 3 against the Vancouver Canucks.
Such is the state of playoff races in the era of the three-point game that not even a 9-2-1 run in the Sabres’ 12 games leading up to the loss to the Avalanche can bring glad tidings. The Sabres cannot even think of finishing in a tie for eighth, so letting that point slip away less than two seconds from safety was agony.
“Losing a point is tough,” Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff said. “It's really tough. It hurts, and losing it the way we lost it hurts even more. But we've got to put it behind us.”
It must be hard to put it behind them, however, when the Sabres look at the Capitals. They, too, have been flirting with overtime. Only when you do it with the lead on teams like the Sabres it helps rather than hurts you.
In their eight games since Feb. 28, the Capitals wound up in overtime four times. They won twice in overtime, lost once and then, in a game that may haunt the Sabres as much as losing to the Avalanche did, the New York Islanders blew two three-goal leads on Tuesday night and lost 5-4 in a shootout to the Capitals. That is a gain of seven points for the Caps that could just as easily have been zero.
The next day, Ruff managed to joke with reporters about watching the Islanders fritter away the game.
“When it went to 4-3, I went to the hardware store to buy lights,” he told The Buffalo News. “I couldn't watch any more.”
What also hurts is the Sabres are slipping just as their goaltender, Ryan Miller, has rediscovered his game. One of the reasons the Sabres were out of playoff contention most of the season despite the expensive acquisition of several players was that Miller played well below his usual standard.
But going into the Colorado game, Miller was 9-1-1 in his previous 11 starts with a 1.78 goals-against average and .944 save percentage.
The Sabres leave Friday for a two-game road trip in Florida that should settle their playoff hopes. The first game is against the Florida Panthers, who are fighting with the Capitals for the Southeast Division lead and the safety of the third playoff seed. Losing this one is not an option.
“We can’t be down. We’ve been playing good hockey,” Ennis said. “We need to keep doing some of the same things did in the last little while here. We’re a confident bunch still and we still need to make this push.”