BUFFALO, N.Y. – Thomas Vanek finds it hard to believe it took the Buffalo Sabres four months to enjoy their first three-game winning streak.
A bigger surprise for the Sabres’ leading scorer is how the team, despite its inconsistencies, suddenly finds itself back in the playoff picture.
“If you don’t win three in a row in a long season, you’re usually in the bottom of the league,” Vanek said Friday. “But the position we’re in, we’re pretty happy about it. Now we’ve got to go for the fourth one and then the fifth, and put a run together.”
The Sabres have, in fact, been on a roll for more than a month in overcoming what had been a dreadful start compounded by the loss of top-line centre Derek Roy to a season-ending leg injury in late December.
With a 3-2 overtime win at Florida on Thursday, the Sabres are 12-4-1 in their past 17 games. It’s a surge that has allowed Buffalo to go from 10 points out of playoff contention on Dec. 27 to within three points of eighth-place Atlanta.
“You win a few games, you feel better about yourself. You kind of get that swagger back,” Vanek said. “We’re feeling comfortable, confident and finding ways to win.”
Much of the credit goes to Vanek, as well as wingers Drew Stafford and Jason Pominville. The trio has combined to score 25 of the team’s 60 goals (not including a shootout victory) over the 17-game stretch to fill the offensive void left by Roy’s absence.
“I think it’s been key,” coach Lindy Ruff said of the offence the group has provided. “There’s no getting away from the fact that we were going to need our best players to be our best players.”
Vanek leads the team with 23 goals and 48 points, with 23 of those points (nine goals, 14 assists) coming in his past 17 games.
Stafford has already matched a career best with 20 goals despite missing 18 games to an assortment of injuries. And he joins the Rangers’ Marian Gaborik and Washington’s Alex Semin as the NHL’s only players to have three three-goal games this season.
Stafford credited the midseason turnaround to a maturing and jelling process that was slow in materializing for a team that got off to a 3-9-2 start and was winless in its first seven home games (0-6-1).
“I just think we’re learning our lessons,” he said. “We weren’t finding ways to win. And I think now, we’ve kind of grown in a short period of time.”
The Sabres are winning despite a drop-off in play of goalie Ryan Miller, who has been inconsistent after winning the Vezina Trophy last year. His 2.68 goals-against average is tied for 26th in the NHL and his .913 save percentage is 25th.
Miller is tied for seventh with 24 wins while continuing to be the Sabres’ workhorse in having appeared in 44 games, including 30 straight.
It’s unclear when Miller will get a rest, though the Sabres open a busy stretch Sunday when they’ll play five games in eight days starting with a home game against the New York Islanders.
Miller was nagged by injuries early in the season, and is also taking advantage of any rest days to stay fresh. The goalie joined many of his teammates on Friday in not taking part in the team’s optional practice.
“We’ve got ourselves in a good position and we kind of have our fate in our own hands a lot more now than we did even two weeks ago,” Miller said. “We’re right in the middle of it now. There’s a long, long way to go, a lot of tough hockey games ahead of us.”
Notes: Ruff acknowledged that D Steve Montador has missed the past two games due to concussion-related symptoms. … RW Patrick Kaleta has a chance to return Sunday after missing six games with a left hand injury. … D Tyler Myers, who scored in overtime against Florida, has seven goals this season, five of them game-winners.