2011 NHL Playoffs: Don’t Sleep on the Red-Hot Buffalo Sabres


Following a 5-2 loss to the Calgary Flames on Dec. 27, the Buffalo Sabres held a players-only meeting to discuss the direction of the team. They were 14-18-4, defending Vezina trophy winner Ryan Miller was struggling after a late October injury and the website Sports Club Stats, which tracks a team’s chances of making the playoffs, gave the Sabres a miniscule 3.42 percent chance of making the postseason.

Other than the players in the locker room that night, nobody knows what was said behind those closed doors but whatever it was, it turned the season around. The Sabres went on to capture nine of the next 10 points and began their ascent from the bottom of the Eastern Conference into the thick of the playoff race.

With improved play from Miller as well as Drew Stafford and Thomas Vanek along with the emergence of the little guys, Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe, the Sabres went 13-4-2 over their next 19 games.

Just as things seemed to be flowing promisingly down the river to the playoffs, the Sabres hit another skid. After three consecutive regulation losses to Toronto, St. Louis and Washington, the Sabres once again looked like playoff outsiders.

The team got the final boost they needed on Feb. 22 when Pennsylvania billionaire Terry Pegula officially took over the team from Tom Golisano.

“From this point forward, the Buffalo Sabres’ reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup,” Pegula said in his opening press conference.

The Sabres’ record from that day forward was 16-4-4, which was good enough for seventh place in the Eastern Conference. They will begin the pursuit for the Stanley Cup against the second-seeded Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night.

Outside of some ESPN writers, the Sabres aren’t being given much of a chance by NHL experts. Most predictions, including those here at Bleacher Report, have Buffalo bowing out in five or six games with Miller being the only reason they survive that long.

Not so fast.

Since Dec. 28, the Sabres have averaged 3.27 goals per game while improving their goal differential by 26 from -10 to +16. Over that same stretch, the Flyers have averaged 3.04 goals per game while improving their goal differential by just 10.

As for defensive stats, since the day after the players-only meeting, the Sabres are allowing 2.69 goals per game while the Flyers are allowing 2.83.

Some may argue that the entire season of statistics favor the Flyers, but what is a better representation of the two teams entering the playoffs, the first three months or the last three months?

Another overlooked factor heading into this series is the health of Miller. I’m not talking about the upper-body injury he suffered against Toronto that forced him to miss four games (Jhonas Enroth filled in admirably).

Instead, I’m talking the amount of rest he has received. In prior seasons, Miller had admittedly been gassed by playoff time because the lack of a backup goalie forced him to play almost exclusively in the weeks leading up to the start of the postseason.

The injury he suffered against the Maple Leafs may turn into a blessing in disguise. By the time the playoffs start on Thursday, Miller won’t have played a full game in 16 days. He did, however, get in about 30 minutes of game action in the final two games and showed no signs of rust.

A healthy and well-rested Miller gives the Sabres not only a good chance to win the Philadelphia series, but a chance to make a deep run.

The Sabres also have great depth heading into the playoffs, which will be key if they do advance past the first round. Injuries have decimated recent Stanley Cup runs but with veterans like Mike Grier and Rob Niedermayer battling for spots in the game-day lineup, the Sabres should have no problem filling holes that may arise. Derek Roy is angling toward a possible round two return and, if healthy, he would provide a nice boost to the offense.

The only Achilles heel that I see for Buffalo is on defense. In recent weeks the Sabres defense has allowed countless odd-man rushes with boneheaded mistakes in the neutral zone. They will need to reduce those errors or the Flyers’ talented forwards will eat them alive. Miller will be able to clean up some of the mistakes, but he will need some help if the Sabres plan on upsetting the Flyers.

Don’t let the seed fool you. Since the calender turned to 2011, the Sabres have been among the best teams in the NHL, and they have a chance to do something special for a city that could use it.

Prediction: Sabres in six, and the run won’t end there for Buffalo.

Read more Buffalo Sabres news on BleacherReport.com

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