BUFFALO, N.Y. – Impressive as the Buffalo Sabres’ two-month charge out of the cellar and into the playoff hunt has been, defenceman Robyn Regehr knows their job is far from complete.
The Sabres remain on the outside looking in and now have a recharged Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals standing in their way in a critical late-season showdown at Washington on Tuesday.
“Well, we haven’t done anything yet, really,” Regehr said after practice Monday. “It’s another step tomorrow.”
That doesn’t mean he and his teammates aren’t excited to be in this position after they were essentially counted out in January. Appreciating how much adversity—questions of character, a rash of injuries, including coach Lindy Ruff’s three broken ribs, and a franchise-worst road skid—the Sabres have already overcome, Regehr had difficulty quantifying how significant the game against the Capitals is.
“I think to call it a big game is an understatement,” Regehr said. “There’s just so much on the line.”
The mood is no different in Washington. The Capitals were already looking ahead to facing Buffalo shortly after they nudged the Sabres out of the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot with a 3-0 win over Minnesota on Sunday.
“It’s going to be like a playoff game,” Jason Chimera said. “Both teams need it and it’s going to be a fun game to play in.”
Though the two teams’ playoff fates won’t be decided on Tuesday, the winner will earn an edge in a race that’s expected to continue over the final 12 days of the season.
Both teams enter Tuesday with 84 points and six games left.
The Capitals (38-30-8) also find themselves in the race to win the Southeast Division title, sitting three points behind Florida.
The Sabres (37-29-10) have much more at stake.
With 30 regulation/overtime wins, the Sabres are at a disadvantage because the three teams immediately ahead of them—Florida (31), Ottawa (33) and Washington (36)—have more non-shootout wins: the first tiebreaker in determining seeding.
“I don’t think I need to sell anything (to the players),” Ruff said. “They know where they’re at. They understand where we can get to and how big the two points is.”
Desperation has been the status quo for the Sabres ever since they woke up Jan. 24 to find themselves alone in last place in the East. Starting with a 2-1 shootout win at New Jersey that snapped a 12-game road skid, Buffalo’s gone on an 18-5-5 run and begun resembling the team that opened the season with a high-priced payroll and the playoff expectations to match.
In going 7-0-2 in their past nine, the Sabres are relatively healthy. After missing as many as nine regulars in November, they’re now only down three.
Their once popgun offence has found a spark.
Rookie forward Marcus Foligno has six goals and four assists in eight games since being called up from the minors. And Cody Hodgson has finally found his groove. The rookie centre has three goals and three assists in four games, after registering no points in his first 10 since being acquired in a trade with Vancouver.
And then there’s goalie Ryan Miller, who has returned to playing at an elite level after struggling in dealing with the aftereffects of a concussion and neck injury he sustained in November.
Miller’s gone 13-1-3 in his past 17, a stretch in which he has three shutouts and allowed 31 goals.
“It’s been an interesting journey, full of all kinds of different emotions and challenges,” Miller said of the team’s turnaround. “I think, considering where we were, I’m happy with the point we’re at now. But it’s a checkpoint along the way. It’s not where we want to end up.”
The Capitals have also faced adversity.
After starting out 9-2, they went into a 3-9-1 tailspin during which coach Bruce Boudreau was fired and replaced by Dale Hunter. They’ve gone 26-21-7 under Hunter, though are 2-2-2 in their past six.
It’s been an up-and-down season for Ovechkin, who has a team-leading 36 goals and 61 points, but is in jeopardy of finishing with a career low in points.
Ovechkin has started heating up, with seven goals in his past five games, and 10 goals and 12 points in his past 10. That’s a big jump over the six goals and 10 points he had in his previous 15.
“It’s night and day,” forward Mike Knuble said of Ovechkin. “All the guys are happy things are going well for him because that means we’re all going to do well.”
AP Sports Writer Joseph White, in Washington, contributed to this report.