The Buffalo Sabres finished their 2011-2012 campaign strong, missing the playoffs by a mere three points after finding themselves in last place in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star Break.

Obviously, this team isn't far off. Most of the trouble the team encountered this season can be attributed to injuries, as they lost over 350-man games because of the injury bug. We most likely won't see that again.

The front office began the offseason already by announcing yesterday that both Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier will return for 2012-2013. I know there are folks on both sides of the fence here, but I don't think enough can be said for continuity. Ruff brought a mostly healthy team on a mad charge in the second half, and Regier signed players such as Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino while trading for Robyn Regehr and the overlooked Alex Sulzer.

The team also will have salary room to work with, having the contracts of Jochen Hecht, Brad Boyes and Shaone Morrison coming off the books. The likes of Boyes especially can be replaced instantly by new-found gem Marcus Foligno. Add in Paul Gaustad, and that will give Regier about $12 million to use.

Virtually the entire team will be in place with just a couple restricted free agents to wrangle under contract, most notably Tyler Ennis and Patrick Kaleta.

Unfortunately, the team still only has one glaring need, and that is a true No. 1 center. This year's free agent crop is surprisingly thin at that position. The head of the list reads: Daymond Langkow, Ollie Jokinen and Jarret Stoll. Only Jokinen has ever been considered a No. 1, and his 2011-2012 salary of $3 million will probably go down. 

I know people will say that Derek Roy could be traded, but I don't really see any team trading a No. 1 center for a package containing Roy. Let's hope Regier can do something to fill this long-standing hole. 

It doesn't often fall into place as it is now, but Buffalo finds themselves in an interesting position holding most of the necessary pieces to make a run. With the right move—and I said "move"—this team may even be a favorite.

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With two games to go in the NHL's regular-season schedule, there are two playoff spots left in the Eastern Conference and three teams fighting for them.

The results of Monday and Tuesday night made the chase for the final two spots a bit more interesting; the Washington Capitals lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Buffalo Sabres rallied for a 6-5 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

With the Sabres showing more heart in their efforts, they managed to tie the Capitals in points. Each have 88 with two games remaining. The Capitals sit above the Sabres, having 36 regulation plus overtime wins (ROW) to Buffalo's 32.

ROW is the first tiebreaker should two teams be tied in points at the end of the season. This means the Sabres will have to have more points than Washington in order to finish ahead of them.

The other team in the hunt is Southeast Division leader Florida Panthers. With 92 points, they are ahead of both Washington and Buffalo, but can still miss the playoffs if each of those teams win their two remaining games while Florida loses their final two in regulation.

The Panthers only need one point to clinch a playoff spot, which they should be able to pick up against Washington or the Carolina Hurricanes (32 wins, 48 total losses, 80 points).

Regarding the Florida vs. Washington matchup on Thursday night, Florida has yet to score a goal in the Verizon Center this season, losing 3-0 in October and 4-0 in February. Washington leads the overall season series 3-2 and could very likely win Thursday's game.

The Sabres must take on the Flyers Thursday night in Philadelphia. Buffalo is 0-3 against Philadelphia this season and was blown out 7-2 in the one game at the Wells Fargo Center in February. (The other two games took place in Buffalo.)

The best prediction is probably a Philadelphia victory in regulation.

Assuming this occurs alongside a Washington win in regulation, the teams would head into their final regular-season games as follows:

Team Points ROW
Florida 92 31
Washington 90 37
Buffalo 88 32

If Washington beats Florida and the Sabres fail to pick up a point against the Flyers, Buffalo is done.

Even if Washington were to lose their final game in regulation and Buffalo picked up two points in a victory (both teams finishing with 90 points), Washington would win the tiebreaker due to more regulation plus overtime wins.

Check back after Thursday for another update. For now, it looks like Florida and Washington will be getting the final two spots.

 

Jason Sapunka covers the NHL and the Philadelphia Flyers.

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The Buffalo Sabres' victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs was reminiscent of the Buffalo Sabres' season. As soon as they are down and out, they somehow pull through. Though their playoff hopes are still out of their control, it is never safe to count out the resilient Sabres.

The great people of Buffalo live for Sabres hockey. Players were alarmed when the boos poured down. With a 3-0 deficit, the clock was against Buffalo and a playoff run seemed out of reach.

Buffalo had already taken a blow from the Maple Leafs a few days prior. The Sabres won a huge game against the Washington Capitals, then backtracked and saw themselves on the outside looking in. They knew what the stakes were against Toronto and, with only two games remaining, they needed the two points.

So they capped off a remarkable game with a stunning 6-5 overtime win. Fans were reinforced of a few things as well: these Sabres never back down and they receive contributions from everybody on their squad.

Alexander Sulzer made a name for himself. He stepped up and twice helped Buffalo overcome two-goal deficits. Over the past 32 games, the Sabres are 20-7-5. They don't want to have a streak that ends with a too-little-too-late spirit. They want the playoffs and don't be surprised if they taste the playoffs.

The Sabres were one of the league's most disappointing teams. Their high payroll didn't translate into on-ice success. The comeback against the Maple Leafs was similar to the comeback towards playoff contention this season. And the road shouldn't end here.

The victory against Toronto was magical. It kept the Sabres alive. Veterans have provided the leadership, but the young players have provided the goals. Ryan Miller has stepped up his game and Tyler Ennis is playing some of his best hockey.

The Sabres' victory was meant to be. They could have folded in and spoiled their season in front of their home crowd. They dug in and toughed it out. They have overcome adversity and roster moves this season, making them mentally tough.

Being mentally and physically sound will benefit the Sabres with two games left. They know they need four points. The season has turned around for Buffalo and the light is at the end of the tunnel. Though they don't control their own destiny, the playoffs are their destiny.

The message is simple; the Sabres have a never-say-never attitude that has allowed them to return to playoff contention. Washington must slip for Buffalo to leapfrog them and be in the top eight in the East. The way Buffalo recovered against the Toronto Maple Leafs was not coincidence or luck. They have a playoff run in them and just need things to go their way for two more nights.

And based on the wicked turnaround, would anyone be surprised?

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