BUFFALO, N.Y. – Forward Drew Stafford was in no mood Sunday to lament how difficult the Sabres have made it on themselves in a bid to make the playoffs entering the final week of the regular season.
Looking back at the opportunities Buffalo has squandered – beginning with a 3-2 loss to New Jersey a day earlier – wasn’t going to alter an Eastern Conference race that has the Sabres stuck in 10th place. They’re four points behind the New York Rangers and Florida, who are also battling for the eighth and final post-season berth.
“It’s definitely easy to analyze everything and see where we missed a point and see what we didn’t do, and get caught up in all that,” Stafford said by phone, as the Sabres had a day off from practice. “But you can’t do that. You have to put it behind you. You have to move on.”
Having relinquished control of their playoff destiny with the loss to the Devils, the Sabres close the season playing four games in six days, beginning Monday, when they host Central Division-leading Detroit.
“Fortunately, we have more games left and we can still do some damage,” Stafford said. “We do need some help, but we’ve got to take care of our end of it, too.”
And that means the Sabres have left themselves with no margin for error, and can’t afford another flat effort as they produced against the Devils. After spotting New Jersey a 3-0 lead, Buffalo’s third-period two-goal, 23-shot rally fell short.
On the bright side, Stafford hoped the Sabres can carry over that effort against Detroit.
“We know that when we play desperate hockey, when we play like that and lay it on the line, we can be a very competitive team,” he said. “That’s definitely something we can build on.”
The Sabres (38-31-9) are in this position due to a season full of inconsistencies. The loss to New Jersey ended Buffalo’s 4-0-1 run that immediately followed a dreadful 1-5-1 stretch.
Though Buffalo opened the season with a 6-0-1 start, it also endured a five-game skid.
The Sabres have particularly struggled against non-playoff contenders, going 1-4-1 against Ottawa, 0-0-4 against Atlanta and 2-2 against Tampa Bay.
Injuries have also been a factor. Leading scorer Thomas Vanek missed nine games with a broken jaw, while starting goalie Ryan Miller missed 13 with a sprained left ankle.
Miller’s injury had the biggest impact on the Sabres.
He was hurt during a 4-2 win over the Rangers, a victory that moved Buffalo into a three-way tie for sixth place, and one point behind Montreal. The Sabres then went 0-2-1 in their next three games and 4-7-2 overall without Miller, dropping them to the position they’re now in.
The Sabres are attempting to avoid missing the playoffs for a second straight year. That’s a significant drop for a team that was eliminated in the conference finals in 2006 and ’07, while winning a league-best 105 regular-season games during those two seasons.
Then again, Buffalo hasn’t been the same – lacking both leadership and identity – since losing co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to free agency in July 2007.
The Sabres’ struggles this season have led to questions regarding the status of both coach Lindy Ruff and general manager Darcy Regier. Completing his 11th season, Ruff is currently the longest-tenured coach with the same team in the league. Regier, meanwhile, is completing his 12th season in Buffalo.
“We’re in tough,” Ruff said, summing up the Sabres playoff picture following the loss to the Devils. “Going into tonight, we didn’t need any help – win the rest of the games and we’re in. Now we need a little bit of help.”
Buffalo plays at Toronto and Carolina before closing its season hosting Boston on Saturday.
“The pressure’s on,” Stafford said. “Everything’s on the line right now.”