MONTREAL – Don’t count the Buffalo Sabres out of the Eastern Conference playoff race just yet.
With goaltender Ryan Miller back from injury and a new sense of desperation in their play, the Sabres are looking to hunt down the Florida Panthers and Montreal Canadiens over their last seven games of the regular season and grab the eighth and final playoff spot.
Comeback wins over Florida and Montreal this week certainly helped the cause.
The Sabres sit 10th in the conference, three points behind Florida and four behind Montreal. The Canadiens and Sabres each have a game in hand over the Panthers. The New York Rangers, who lost Saturday to Pittsburgh, are only one point ahead of Montreal and have played one more game.
“We need all the positives we can get right now, but we also need to prove we can battle through adversity,” Miller said. “During the season, I don’t think we handled it as well as we could and now is a good time to figure it out.
“There’s still a lot of hockey left to play. It’s a race to 82 games, so there are points to be had and we know we’re in a battle. We feel we can compete, even if we’re down. Those types of games are going to be good for us.”
Last Wednesday, the Sabres trailed the Panthers 3-1 going into the third period, but exploded for three goals in a 2:07 span and went on to a 5-3 win. They followed with a 5-3 win over Toronto on Friday night.
“We were down going into the third period and we needed to let it all out on the line,” captain Craig Rivet recalled of the Florida game. “That was our season in a nutshell – we lose that game, we’d be out.
“We gave a huge effort in the third period and that seemed to give us momentum going into the next game against Toronto.”
Then came an even bigger test – facing the Canadiens in Montreal only 24 hours after the Leafs.
Before the game, Rivet said it would be “one of the deciding factors of whether we’re giving ourselves a shot at making it. If we lose, it’ll be a huge uphill battle to try to make it.”
Buffalo took a 2-0 lead in the second period but the fresher-looking Canadiens stormed back with three goals.
The Sabres didn’t quit. They outshot Montreal 16-7 in the third period and got the equalizer from Clarke MacArthur at the 3:58 mark.
When overtime didn’t settle it, Miller did, stopping all six Montreal attempts in a shootout, while low-scoring defenceman Tony Lydman beat a sharp Carey Price on Buffalo’s sixth shot.
It wasn’t ideal because Montreal earned one point, but it was another step for Buffalo. It gave the Sabres three wins a row heading into road games Wednesday in Atlanta and Friday in Washington, followed by a home game Saturday against New Jersey. Then they play Detroit.
Having Miller back from a high ankle sprain is Buffalo’s best hope to avoid missing the post-season for a second straight year and for a fifth time in the last seven.
While the 28-year-old said there is still some pain in the ankle, he couldn’t sit out any longer and, with the help of Tylenol, went back in the net.
“The last time I had an injury like that I got to play two games in the minors to work my way back to form, but this time, it’s right into the fire,” he said. “It’s crunch time. I couldn’t wait.
“It’s as good as it’s going to get. You don’t get any more healing done until you stop putting the pressure on that hockey will do to it. This is something I can tolerate and compete, to help the guys win. If I didn’t feel like I could go out and do what I need to do, I would have stayed away.”
The Sabres looked a safe bet to make the playoffs until their star goalie went down Feb. 1. Then they went 4-7-2 with back-up Patrick Lalime in goal.
It’s been that kind of season for the Sabres, who started the campaign 6-2-2 in October, then went into a funk for two months before rebounding with a 9-4-0 January, then sliding into another skid.
Injuries to Thomas Vanek and Maxim Afinogenov have hurt, and neither has played especially well since they returned. Afinogenov was not even in the lineup against Montreal, while Vanek, the team leader with 35 goals, had no points and was minus-1.
The Austrian sniper was out from Feb. 11 to March 4 with a jaw injury.
“I think his play has been average,” said coach Lindy Ruff. “It needs to be better.
“He’s had some good games and some average games. I question some of the vision issues wearing the cage he’s wearing.”
Now there are rumblings that Ruff could be out of work if the Sabres don’t make it, although Sabres minority owner Larry Quinn recently gave a vote of confidence to both Ruff and general manager Darcy Regier.
Ruff has coached the Sabres since 1997, the longest current tenure in a league where coaches rarely last more than two or three seasons with the same club. But he has a year left on his contract and the NHL coach of the year in 2005-06 would likely be snapped up by another team if he ever got the axe.
“I keep saying, I’ve just been lucky,” said Ruff. “We’ve had a couple of changes in ownership and I’ve been lucky to make it through the transition.
“I think one reason I’m still here is we have a general manager who doesn’t pull the pin that fast. We look for solutions and we work at it together. His patience is a reason, probably.”