Sabres fans today we sit tied for 8th with the Washington Capitals with 6 games remaining, a feat that seemed near impossible about a month ago. Whether we actually make the playoffs remains unknown, but the way we're playing right now, I wouldn't want to bet against our chances. The Sabres are on an amazing run but it seems all too familiar.
Once again we have scratched and clawed our way out of the basement of the East and the league to compete for a playoff spot. (Heck on Saturday for a brief moment we were in 7th!) Everyone remembers last season's turnaround after Terry "Big Pockets" Pegula came in and bought the team, there was a remarkable turnaround and we even made the playoffs. This season, as late as February 17th the Sabres found themselves in 15th in the East and looking for answers, but since Feb 17th the Sabres have gone 13-2-3 and find themselves back in the playoff hunt.
The Situation this season is similar but very different from last season's turnaround. Last season we could credit the turnaround to Terry Pegula, this year's turnaround can be credited to a number of different factors.
1. Ryan Miller
Ryan Miller has been phenomenal post all star game (late Feb) and is a major part in the Sabres turnaround. Great teams start from the goaltender and build out. "Show me a good goalie and I'll show you a winning hockey team," that can't be more true for the Sabres right now. There is no question without Miller between the pipes the Sabres would not be in the playoff battle they are right now. Two years ago Miller carried the US Olympic hockey team to within a goal of the gold medal, and today almost in an anniversary of sorts he is carrying the Buffalo Sabres on a late season playoff push! In the last 9 games Miller is 7-0-2 making sure the Sabres get at least a point in every game and has allowed just 18 goals. There is a reason Ryan Miller is my favorite goalie; it's because he is a clutch goalie he wins games when he has too, when everything is on the line is when Ryan Miller is at his best. The world's biggest stages when all odds are stacked against is when you're going to see Ryan Miller at his best between the pipes! Now I wouldn't have minded if he played this way all season and save us a bit of heartache, but as long as he's getting us 2 points now who cares! Even during games when our defense has been atrocious Miller has been on his game making big time game saving saves. The best part of having a Ryan Miller esq goalie is the chance to win any game you play. Ryan is back on his game, meaning the Sabres have a chance every game.
Despite his struggles this season, Miller has managed to write his name in the Sabres record books, pass all time great Dominic Hasek and record his career high 7th shutout of the season. In fact Miller needs just 1 more win to join Henrik Lundqvist to become the only 2 goalies to record at least 30 wins in a season 7 straight times!
Miller has proven all critics wrong and showed just how pivotal he is to this Sabres team, our last 6 games and a chance at the playoffs all relay on how well Miller plays. If he plays well we win we control our own destiny and we make the playoffs. One thing's for sure "It's Miller Time in Buffalo again!"
2. Tyler Ennis
When thinking of the success of the Sabres as of late, you can't help look at the play of Ennis. The 20 year old has really elevated his game to the next level and proved he can and will be a special player in the future. He's playing the way people thought he would when he was pegged to be the rookie of the year prior to last season. But it was an up and down year, and a rough start for the sophomore Ennis who missed 35 games due to injury (including all of November and the majority of January). Since the Sabres dismantled the Bruins back on Feb 8th Ennis as 8 goals and 11 assists in 21 games, and on the west coast road trip which was undoubtedly the turning point of the season, he recorded a point in all 4 games. But Ennis' play didn't stay out West, upon returning to Buffalo and playing center between Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford, Ennis has been enjoying scoring, assisting and winning hockey games. This season it looks like Ennis is a better fit at center and watching him play you can see why he was so highly rated in the 2008 draft.
His skill at faceoffs is lessening the loss of Gaustad at that position, going into the game against Montreal Ennis had won 51.6% of his faceoff's since March 10th which is right up there with some of the best centers in the league. Rich Peverely who leads the league has won 61.7%. Not bad numbers for Ennis considering he's been a winger most of the year!
Ennis has been power driving the Sabres offence and is nearly on a point per game pace, he's a major contribute to the turn around. If Miller stops all the pucks someone still has to score for the Sabres and that someone has been Tyler Ennis. He's made his line mates unstoppable.
Ennis has give line mate Drew Stafford his confidence back and made Marcus Foligno so comfortable out there in the first few games. Ennis is the type of player that just makes everyone better!
The way Ennis has turned on the "jets" so to speak is incredible, his play just shows how much he and all the young players want to make it to the playoffs. After all the playoffs is a whole new ball game!
Everyone laughs and jokes at how cute the "bromance" is between Ryan Miller and Tyler Ennis (funny they are the major reasons for the turnaround) but there is more to it that it just being cute, it's legitimate. The Buffalo Sabres are finally coming together and playing for their teammates and the logo on the front not the name on the back of the jerseys. It takes time for teammates to get chemistry, and it isn't easy when there are so many injuries and new faces, but all the good, no great teams have chemistry. Take the defending champs the Bruins, you mess with one of their players and Lucic, Chara or even Marchand is beating the crap out of you, Thomas makes a big save he gives a big smile to Chara or the D man. The Sabres are banding together and becoming brothers!
It's really great to see from a fan perspective, when someone on the Ennis line scores the huddle or celebrations between the three of them is amazing, it's intense, it's happy, it's awesome! When Foligno did his famous "Foligno leap" after scoring his first goal in Buffalo everyone gave him the famous face wash; these guys are finally starting to relax and have some fun out there. If hockey isn't fun when you're playing, then stop playing. The Sabres are having fun winning hockey games, scoring goals, and turning heads around the league.
One more thing is the golden helmet, just something fun that keeps the mood light, but yet gets everyone out there competing hard to win it. It's a sense of pride, knowing you were the best player out there so you get to wear the goofy helmet. It keeps them having fun and lose, also as I think the players choose who gets it, it builds trust and recognition that your teammates are noticing what you are contributing.
A fun hockey team is a winning hockey team.
4. Derek Roy and Drew Stafford (and other veterans who got off to slow starts)
Well considering a month ago everyone including me was calling for their heads, it's time to pay some respect to them. These two have been arguably the biggest disappointments all season. Unlike the majority of their teammates they have remained fairly healthy but failed to step up when the team needed them most. However, since Feb 1 the two have woken up; they have 19 and 16 points respectively.
A major part for Stafford's turnaround has been being on the Ennis line. He recently came off a 4 game point streak in which he recorded 9 points to give him 42 on the season just 10 shy of his career high set last season. Since being placed with Ennis and Foligno he's been more productive and ultimately more confident. He's more willing to shoot and make solid tape to tape passes.
Roy has been a hot and cold player all year long for the Sabres, but since being paired with Pominville and Leino he's been more consistent and is showing flashes of his passion for the game which he used last season to be a point per game player prior to his injury. I'm not 100% sold on Roy but he's starting to pick up his game and becoming less of a liability out on the ice. Heck it even seems like his teammates are more tolerant of his antics.
There is no question these two can score, it's just finding them the right line mates and getting them motivated.
Let's disect the lines here for a minute shall we;
first line; Ville Leino - Derek Roy- Jason Pominville
second; Corey Tropp - Cody Hodgson - Thomas Vanek
third; Marcus Foligno - Tyler Ennis - Drew Stafford
fourth; Cody McCormick - Brad Boyes - Travis Turnbull
This is crucial I know I ranked it 6th, but the fact that the Sabres are almost fully healthy again is a huge boost to this team. (Gerbe is coming back). I believe at one point there were 9 starters out of the lineup including Miller who took forever to rebound from his concussion. You're just not going to win hockey games when missing 9 regulars, might as well call up the Amerks and ask them to play for you!
But now everyone including Miller and Myers is healthy and producing when the Sabres need them too!
The reason this is last on the list is, I hate when people blame injuries for poor play, maybe injuries really are taking a toll but good teams and players still give it their all and don't blame injuries. However, seeing the Wild over the weekend should have reminded us what we've been through this season. For the Sabres though, it's looking more and more likely injuries were the major reason for the mid-season struggles, I mean we were practically in 15th, now we're tied for 8th 2 points back of 7th with the majority healthy.
Now with the majority of players are healthy we're looking like the team that began the season over in Europe, came home on a roll and got everyone excited. If everyone can remain healthy for the remaining 6 games than we should be able to finish off the season in a playoff spot, either 7th or 8th!
So the turning point in the season was the West coast trip, I'm not going to lie I had my doubts about those games, I was pretty nervous about how the Sabres would play. Then we flippen went out there and won all of them (minus the overtime loss) and Miller gets 2 shutouts! Like what the flip happened? Whatever happened I'm glad it did, because the Sabres are the Sabres everyone expected them to be at the start of the year.
I know deserving things in hockey means as little as what the player ate for a pregame meal, but the Sabres deserve to make the postseason, so hopefully the hockey gods will do a little something for the Sabres!