Northeast: Sabres’ Miller a catalyst to late season playoff drive

By John-Eric Iannicello

Photo: The play of Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller has been the main reason for the team’s current run at a playoff berth (courtesy of

Jay Kopinski/Icon SMI)

It has been a rollercoaster season for the Buffalo Sabres, but a recent surge by the team has them on the cusp of the eighth and final playoff spot.

As of today, the Sabres sit two points out of a playoff spot that is currently being held by the Washington Capitals with 76 points.

The Sabres were among the most active buyers last summer. They invested big money in forward Ville Leino and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, and traded for physical veteran defenseman Robyn Regehr as they looked to upgrade on their seventh place finish in the 2010-11 season. They finished with 96 points and a 43-29-10 record that year. They were also one win away from bouncing the Philadelphia Flyers out of the playoffs last spring, losing in game seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

A combination of injuries and ackluster seasons from a number of players on the Sabres roster, and most importantly, the inconsistency of Ryan Miller early in the season, have contributed to the rollercoaster season. Miller missed eight games early in the season with a concussion at the hands of a controversial Milan Lucic hit. Miller was injured in mid-November, and returned to action with a win against the Nashville Predators on December 3rd, 2011. In his absence, the Sabres went 3-6 and sat (uncomfortably) in seventh spot in the Eastern Conference.

Things didn’t get much better for the club in the next two months as they plummeted to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings with 45 points. In the days between Miller’s return and the All-Star break, the club had gone 7-13-4 in 24 games.

Since the NHL All-Star break, Miller has been lights out for the club. He has a 13-3-3 record and has only been under a 0.900 save percentage three times in that span. The club now sits only two points
out of a playoff spot heading into the final 13 games of the season. In his last 10 games, Miller is 8-1-1, and has a 1.76 goals against average along with a 0.946 save percentage.

The Sabres have key, must-win match-ups over the next two weeks against the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals. They will also need to take advantage of teams behind them in the standings and not sacrifice any points in the process. They play Montreal, Tampa Bay, and Minnesota once and the Toronto twice in the final 13 games. They’ll also have stiff competition against Atlantic Division teams, with games against the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers. The Sabres have struggled against the Atlantic Division this season, going 2-4-2 and being outscored 34-23.

The Sabres will need a number of forwards to heat up offensively, and will require their goaltending to remain a major strength down the stretch. For the first time in months, the playoffs are a reality, and a strong finish to the season should secure them a spot.

Northeast Division Notes

Buffalo Sabres: Tyler Ennis had a key game vs. the Canadiens, scoring two goals. He had only one point in his previous four. Thomas Vanek returned to the Sabres lineup vs. the Canadiens. He missed Saturday’s game with an upper-body injury. Andrej Sekera has pneumonia and remains out of the lineup. Forward Matt Ellis also joins the injury list after hurting his right knee on Monday. He is out indefinitely.

Boston Bruins:
Patrice Bergeron will be a game-time decision tonight vs. Tampa Bay. He suffered an injury after blocking a shot this past weekend. Rookie Max Sauve returned home, his injury has left him on crutches. Adam McQuaid and Dan Paille remain day-to-day with injuries. Trent Whitfield has been recalled from Providence (AHL) on an emergency basis.

Montreal Canadiens:
Peter Budaj got the start for the Canadiens on Monday night and was solid, turning aside 33 of 36 shots. Erik Cole has matched his 2010-11 goal totals after scoring his 26th on Monday vs. the Sabres. The forward has three goals in his last two games. David Desharnais returned to the lineup and contributed a goal and an assist.

Ottawa Senators:
As of Monday, Craig Anderson is doing on-ice work but isn’t practising with the team yet, which indicates there’s still no set timetable for his return. Jesse Winchester remains week-to-week with a concussion. He’s been out since December 22nd.

Toronto Maple Leafs:
The Maple Leafs travel to Florida looking for not only a win, but a few goals tonight. The Maple Leafs haven’t scored in their last two contests. James Reimer is expected to get the start against the Panthers.