BUFFALO, N.Y. – Darcy Regier never stopped believing the Buffalo Sabres were capable of making the playoffs, even during the bleakest moments of this season.
Now that the Sabres have validated their general manager’s faith, there’s no telling how far the momentum of a second-half surge can carry them.
Regier and everyone else will start finding out this week, when the seventh-seeded Sabres open the post-season against the Atlantic Division-winning Philadelphia Flyers.
“It’s up there,” Regier said Sunday, when asked to compare playoff teams during his 14-year tenure in Buffalo. “I don’t get caught up in ranking them, but I can tell you it’s a great way to go into the playoffs.”
Counted out in December, confident in April.
After being as many as 10 points out of contention in January, the Sabres ended the season by going 9-1-2 in their final 12 games to cap a charge in which they were 29-11-6 since Dec. 28.
The 64 points Buffalo gained over that span are second to the Vancouver Canucks, the Presidents’ Trophy winners who closed with a 33-11-4 spurt.
The Sabres overcame a dreadful 3-9-2 start, in which they were tied with Edmonton for last in the NHL in the first week of November. Buffalo managed to make up for the loss of first-line centre Derek Roy, who sustained a season-ending leg injury on Dec. 23.
The Sabres also didn’t stumble after starting goalie Ryan Miller missed four-plus games over the final two weeks because of an upper body injury. Jhonas Enroth filled in and went 3-0-1 over four games, including a shutout.
“They believe in themselves and they believe in each other,” Regier said. “You can see it and feel it being around them.”
The Flyers had the edge in the season series against the Sabres, going 2-1-1, including a 4-3 overtime loss at Buffalo on Friday.
This will mark the ninth time the two teams are meeting in the playoffs, and sixth since 1995. Though the Flyers have won five of eight series, the Sabres have won three of the past four.
Thomas Vanek led a balanced offensive attack with a team-leading 32 goals and 73 points. Drew Stafford scored a career-best 31 goals.
Nathan Gerbe provided Buffalo a third-line threat by scoring 15 of his 16 goals over his final 39 games. Gerbe’s most memorable goal was a game-tying spin-around backhander against the Flyers on Friday in a win that clinched the Sabres’ playoff berth.
Consistency has been the key. Buffalo’s four-game winning streak to close the season is the team’s longest. More importantly, the Sabres haven’t lost consecutive games since a three-game skid from Feb. 16-20.
Vanek credited the Sabres’ surge to the team’s even-keel approach.
“If you look at the big picture, sometimes guys get overwhelmed by it,” Vanek said last week. “Every game was a big game for us, but when we lost one, it’s come back the next day with a smile, work hard and get the next one.”
Vanek credits the turnaround for coming during a team meeting following a 5-2 loss at Calgary on Dec. 27.
“It could’ve been easily a perfect time to say, ‘Derek’s out and it’s just one of those years,'” Vanek recalled. “We all felt we had more, and we could do better. Even though at that point we were quite a bit out of it, we never felt out of it.”