TORONTO – No one needs to remind the Buffalo Sabres how quickly the playoffs are approaching.
They entered Thursday’s game in Toronto with wins in seven of eight games and a comfortable lead in the Northeast Division, but left in an extremely sour mood after losing 4-2. The fact they were playing on back-to-back nights didn’t make them feel any better, either.
“It’s really not my focus right now – just winning hockey games and winning as a habit is what we’re trying to focus on,” said goaltender Ryan Miller, the Vezina Trophy favourite. “And this was not good. I’m not impressed with that effort.
“Back-to-back, but coming off a game where we didn’t get much a of a challenge from Florida (on Wednesday) – they looked like were out to lunch – it’s not always going to be that simple, it’s not going to go your way like that every night. We didn’t step up.”
Clearly, a playoff attitude is already taking hold in Buffalo.
Starting with Saturday’s visit to Montreal, they have five games to play before likely opening the post-season on home ice at HSBC Arena. And they intend to start building momentum now.
“We want to get on a roll, we want to be a team that is going well heading into the playoffs,” said forward Jason Pominville. “We have the opportunity to bounce back in Montreal against a team that is pretty desperate.”
It could be a preview of a first-round playoff matchup.
Buffalo is likely to finish as the Eastern Conference’s second or third seed while the Habs are among the teams jostling for sixth, seventh or eighth. The Sabres have tried not to put much focus on who they’ll face in the first round.
“There’s still a lot of things that can happen,” said Pominville. “There’s still a lot of movement every day.
“But I think we’d be lying to say that we’re not looking at what’s going on around the league.”
Anyone who watched the Olympic tournament should understand why the Sabres could be a force in the playoffs. Miller was the No. 1 reason the U.S. team came within a goal of winning gold in Vancouver and will make Buffalo a tough opponent for anyone this spring.
The Sabres use a balanced approach – Tim Connolly, currently out with a lower-body injury, leads them in scoring with 65 points – and don’t have the same star power as the conference’s other top teams. However, Buffalo has earned the respect of its opponents.
“You have to be on your toes every single shift (against them),” said Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “Their whole team plays the same – (coach Lindy Ruff’s) done a really good job, everybody plays exactly the same way. From your first line to the fourth line, you know you have to compete for every inch on the ice. …
“They limit scoring chances, get great goaltending and get timely goals too.”
It helps explain why the Sabres were so upset with their performance on Thursday night. They clearly weren’t playing with the emotion and energy they’ll need to compete with the NHL’s top teams.
“We were hanging in there, but hanging in there isn’t going to get you a win,” said Ruff.
Expect that to change when the puck drops at the Bell Centre on Saturday night.
With just over a week left in the regular season, the Sabres know they have to start elevating their game now. There’s a sense of urgency in the dressing room.
“We better raise our level of play in general,” said Miller. “It’s imperative that we have good habits. It’s a bad cycle to go into the playoffs like that … I don’t want to see any more of it.”