More effort, some smarter play, a lucky bounce or even fate are being called upon to save a club that is one loss away from a humiliating series sweep at the hands of the Ottawa Senators.
The Senators take a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference final into Game 4 on Wednesday night (CBC, 7 p.m. ET) at Scotiabank Place.
The Sabres hope to become only the third NHL team – after the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and the 1975 New York Islanders – to rebound from a 3-0 deficit and win a series.
And coach Lindy Ruff says the time has come.
“Every 33 years, something great happens in this league and we’re at that 33-year range where something happens,” Ruff said Tuesday with the hint of a grin. “So we’re on the verge of greatness.”
He was quick to add “approximately,” since it has been only 32 years since the Islanders came back to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the quarter-finals before almost repeating the feat in the semifinals against Philadelphia.
But it is close enough to count as another source of motivation for the NHL’s first-place overall team in the regular season, who have been dominated at both ends of the rink.
The Sabres were the league’s highest-scoring team, but none of their talented top three lines has been able to generate many chances at even strength or on the power play, where the Sabres are 0-for-18 in the series.
“If we could improve that, it could change the whole series,” said Sabres star Daniel Briere. “So far, they’ve won the special teams battle. We’re trying to find answers.”
And they likely won’t be able to count on the Senators taking them lightly in Game 4, not with all of Ottawa abuzz at the prospect of a team known for post-season disappointment on the brink of reaching the Stanley Cup final for the first time.
The Senators have lost only two of 13 playoff games thus far after bouncing Pittsburgh and New Jersey in five games each and are on a team-record six-game post-season winning streak.
A year ago, the roles were reversed, but the Senators staved off a second-round sweep with a Game 4 win in Buffalo before bowing out in five games.
“There’s a lot on the line,” said Ottawa centre Mike Fisher. “We know that with one win we’re in the final and that’s going to motivate us.
“We respect Buffalo as a team. It’s not going to be hard to get up for this game.”
The Senators look to use the same high-pressure game that has caused the Sabres so much trouble thus far.
Ottawa has won most of the faceoffs and most of the battles for loose pucks. And when Buffalo gets the puck, they find Ottawa backcheckers breaking up their plays or defencemen throwing themselves in front of their shots.
“Positionally, they’ve been in the right place at the right time the whole series,” said Sabres veteran Chris Drury, who has been held to one assist against Ottawa.
“We’re not getting odd-man rushes and when we do, they quickly shut them down. And around their net, they’ve done an unbelievable job blocking shots. You can tell they’re really committed to it. Guys diving head first, face first. That doesn’t go unnoticed in this room.”
Ottawa’s top defence pair of Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips in particular has excelled at shot blocking and keeping the area in front of goalie Ray Emery’s net clear.
The Sabres will look for the kind of effort they got at home in Game 2, when desperate play helped them to an early 2-0 lead, but even then the Senators were able to regain control and win in overtime.
In Game 3 in Ottawa on Monday night, they wasted a spectacular 31-save effort by goaltender Ryan Miller with a nervous, tentative effort and lost 1-0 on Daniel Alfredsson’s ninth goal of the playoffs.
It was the first time all season the high-powered Buffalo attack was shut out.
After the game, Miller talked to his teammates about trusting each other and playing together as a team.
“Some guys have been trying to do too much,” said Miller. “You’re not going to beat a good system like the Ottawa Senators have by playing on your own.
“We’ve been overzealous. We’ve tried to make things happen with the puck that aren’t there. We have to believe in each other.”
Players were surprisingly loose at the Sabres’ practice. They are in classic do-or-die mode and are looking for that one win that could start a miraculous comeback, although their recent play points to a sweep.
All they can do, added Drury, is “just hang in there. Hopefully we show up with a lot of guts.
“Statistically it’s a tough position we’re in, but we’re not going to quit. Maybe one win will get us going.”
Forward Dainius Zubrus missed practice, as he did before Game 2, but Ruff said he will play. In the playoffs, information on injuries is scarce.