BUFFALO, N.Y. – On the brink of missing the playoffs, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff reflected on the number of opportunities Buffalo squandered in a season pockmarked by close losses and blown leads.
“Well, I don’t want to stand here and be where we’re at,” Ruff said Monday, a day before the Sabres play at Toronto to open a season-ending three-game road trip. “I just feel that we could’ve been a little bit better in a few of those situations that we let slip away.” The Sabres are 13-18 in games decided by one goal, including nine shootout losses, and they’ve lost 14 games (30-6-8) in which they were ahead or tied entering the third period. That’s adding up, leaving Buffalo one loss from being eliminated.
With 86 points, Buffalo sits in 10th place, five points behind a three-team logjam (the New York Rangers, Boston and Philadelphia) holding the Eastern Conference’s final three playoff spots. Then there’s ninth-place Washington, which sits two points ahead of Buffalo and could still catch Carolina and claim the Southeast Division title.
For the Sabres to have a shot, they’d have to win their final three games, and two or possibly three of the five teams ahead of them would have to collapse down the stretch.
To jump clear of Buffalo, the Rangers need one point in their final four games and the Bruins and Flyers need only win one of their final three games.
And then there’s a complex scenario involving the Southeast race, and the automatic berth earned by the team that wins the division. It’s possible that Carolina and Washington could both sneak in ahead of Buffalo and another team.
After winning the Presidents’ Trophy last season, the Sabres are in jeopardy of becoming only the third team since the NHL’s expansion era began in 1967-68 to miss the playoffs a year after finishing first in the regular-season standings. The New York Rangers missed the playoffs in 1992-93, as did Montreal in 1969-70.
“I think you feel pressure,” Ruff said. “Obviously, we let some points slide away that were very important points here recently. And hanging by a thread in hoping other teams have to basically blow up is a tough place to be.”
The Sabres made it even tougher on themselves by losing six games in which they held a two-goal lead. That includes losing back-to-back home games last week – a 6-3 loss to Ottawa and 4-3 shootout loss to Montreal – in which the Sabres blew 3-1, third-period leads.
Ruff, the Sabres winningest coach and the NHL’s coach of the year in 2006, even second-guessed some of his own decisions, while realizing he can’t change the past.
Sabres players can only look forward.
“At the start of the season, one of our goals was not to look back and say, ‘We could’ve had that game or could’ve had this game,”‘ forward Derek Roy said. “The playoff spot’s right there for us, and we’ve got to take it. We can’t look back.”
Roy has done his part. He’s second on the team with 77 points (31 goals, 46 assists). With an assist in a 2-1 overtime win over Boston on Sunday, he extended his point streak to a career-best nine games, a stretch in which has four goals and 12 assists.
After playing Toronto, Buffalo closes its season at Montreal on Thursday and at Boston on Saturday.
“The season’s alive still,” said goalie Ryan Miller. “No regrets. We’ve got to play, and that’s all there is to it.”