On January 18, spirits were high. The Sabres beat Phoenix 7-2 and fans were talking about just how high the team could go in the standings. Then they hit the West coast and things seemed to fall apart.
Since then the mood seems to be much more dour. The team has looked good at times and awful at others, and games seem to be slipping away. A general malaise seems to have come down on the fans, who aren’t making much noise in the arena and are declaring players “busts” less than a dozen games into their tenure as Sabres.
However, a look at the standings is actually pretty surprising. As of today the Sabres have a five point lead in the division with three games in hand on Ottawa. Their opponent tonight, Montreal, is nine points back and has played two more games than the Sabres.
Holy crap, the Sabres are in great shape.
Sunday night’s AP recap lead with the following sentence:
With the Northeast Division all but wrapped up…
At first I thought that can’t possibly be true. But sure enough, the Sabres are very close to adding a banner to the rafters at HSBC Arena. That alone is a rarity, and something we should take some time to appreciate. So why, then, are many people still unhappy with the team?
The easy answer is that despite the good position they have in the standings, the team still hasn’t played very well. Since that Coyotes game in January, the Sabres have gone 9-11-4. That’s good for 22 points in 24 games, a truly mediocre showing.
Still, that’s a stretch of 22 games that has included two lengthy road trips and a two week Olympic break. Translation: it’s been a really, really weird season but the Sabres are still in good shape. There were a lot of things that could have hurt this team. The NCAA Tournament put them on the road during a crucial stretch of the season, the Olympics put their best player in the international spotlight and gave him an extra six games to play in net.
The West coast trip was bad, but it could have been a complete disaster. The Olympics could have been awful, and an injury could hate destroyed this team’s only chance to get somewhere this postseason. There was plenty of room for the Sabres to fall apart and make bad go to worse, but here they are a few weeks away from locking up the #3 seed in the East. Heck, Pittsburgh/New Jersey are just two points ahead of the Sabres. Buffalo has plenty to play for, but they won’t have to look over their shoulder as much as we thought.
This week the Sabres play three games in four nights. It’s a huge week, with Montreal and Ottawa coming to town and looking up at the Sabres atop the division. Still, it’s a huge week not because they are within striking distance, but because Buffalo can drop the hammer on these teams and close the door on the division crown.
It’s been three years since that has happened, and while the team may not be as good as they were three seasons ago you have to feel good about where they are headed. Our expectations have swung so heavily this season. In October we have no idea what to expect, by December the sky was the limit; and now we’re somewhere in between. After this week we will know a whole lot more, but right now I can’t see how the Sabres start next season with some new linens hanging from the rooftops.
If you ask me, that’s a good place to start.