Not that long ago the Buffalo Sabres looked dead and buried in the Eastern Conference.
The team was fading fast and star goalie Ryan Miller was having the worst season of his career. Big free agent acquisitions Ville Lieno and Christian Ehrhoff weren't doing much better, prompting many fans in Buffalo to write off the season. As recently as Feb. 16, the Sabres were 10 points out of a playoff position with little hope in sight.
Then everything changed. The Sabres went unbeaten in eight games and posted three straight wins over the Anaheim Ducks, San Joes Sharks and Vancouver Canucks. Miller earned back to back shutouts and his save percentage jumped to .958 from .897 in January. Now a win Monday night against the Winnipeg Jets at the MTS Centre will put Buffalo back into the playoff picture for the first time since before Christmas.
"We've been treating very game like a playoff game," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Monday after the Sabres practised. "You don't expect, maybe, to be where we are at in a week, but if you get some breaks, you get a few bounces, and we've had a few go our way, we can win games."
He also credited the turnaround to Miller, who has finally re discovered his game.
"You usually go to the goaltender first on most teams. There are not many teams that can out gun the other team with tough goaltending. We know that [Miller]is the most important piece to our team and he puts a lot of confidence in our team when he plays well," he said.
Ruff added that the Sabres got off to a good start this season, winning five out of the team's first six games. But injuries, including one to Miller, soon took a toll.
"At one time we had nine players out of the lineup," he said. "I don't know any team that can really propel themselves upward in the standings [with that many injuries] You try to survive and we didn't do a very good job of surviving."
Buffalo's improved play has been noticed by the Jets. The last time these teams played, on Jan. 19, Winnipeg won easily 4-1. But Jets coach Claude Noel isn't expecting an easy time Monday night.
"They are in a good place right now when you watch them play," Noel said Monday. "They look like they are feeding off their goaltender. Miller is going to be a key factor in this game."
He added that before, Buffalo was "uncertain about how things were going to get played out from the back end."
"And now," he added, "they don't seem to have those thoughts."