The Buffalo Sabres are where the Toronto Maple Leafs dreamed they would be a couple of months ago.
Funny thing about dreams, though. The Leafs' turned into a nightmare while the Sabres had the opposite experience.
On Jan. 24, the Leafs were officially sitting in eighth place in the NHL's Eastern Conference. But they were tied in points at 55 with the sixth-place New Jersey Devils and seventh-place Washington Capitals. Meanwhile, the Sabres were 10 points behind in 12th place and seemingly spinning their wheels.
Since then, the Maple Leafs went on a 9-17-4 slide that took them out of the playoffs to 14th place. The Sabres, who will play the Leafs on Saturday, went into Friday night's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins with a five-game winning streak and a 19-5-5 record since Jan. 24.
While playing the Leafs lately at the Air Canada Centre is a guaranteed win, the Sabres will likely get the added advantage of facing rookie goaltender Jussi Rynnas. He was shelled 7-1 by the Philadelphia Flyers in his first NHL start on Thursday and is expected to make his second start against the Sabres because Jonas Gustavsson has a bruise on his left knee.
Individually, goaltender Ryan Miller can take most of the credit for the Sabres' rise through the ranks. After suffering a concussion on Nov. 13 and missing three weeks of action, Miller struggled badly when he returned.
But his rise since late January – a 19-3-5 record, 1.80 goals-against average and .940 save percentage – lifted the Sabres' ship as a whole. With the Sabres fighting hard with the Capitals and Ottawa Senators for the last two playoff spots in the conference, Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff is riding Miller hard down the stretch. He is expected to face the Leafs in the Sabres' second of back-to-back games.
Leafs winger Clarke MacArthur, a former Sabres teammate of Miller's, says all you can do when the goaltender is hot is try and stop him from seeing the puck.
"Obviously, right now, if he sees it he stops it," MacArthur said. "It's get traffic in front [of the net] If it's a clear lane in front of him it's not going in, the zone he's in."
MacArthur said he often saw Miller lock himself into such a zone. He isn't sure why Miller had such a long stretch of mediocre play but thinks it might have something to do with getting tense when success did not come right away when Miller returned from his concussion on Dec. 3.
"I think he's relaxed right now," MacArthur said. "A goalie like him is a game-changer."
Of course, Miller is not the only reason the Sabres turned themselves around. Several of their top nine forwards were playing badly as well and some of them have found their game. Throw in youngsters Cody Hodgson, who is starting to score with winger Thomas Vanek after arriving in a deadline-day trade, and Marcus Foligno, who had 10 points in nine games before Friday after being called up from the farm team on Mar. 9, and the Sabres' attack is finally humming.
A gamble by Ruff paid off when he moved the diminutive Tyler Ennis from the wing to centre on Jan. 24 when he finally shook off an ankle sprain. While Ennis lacks the size of most NHL centres, Ruff made the move because expensive free-agent acquisition Ville Leino could not handle his move to centre.
Since then, Ennis clicked with Foligno and Drew Stafford, who was re-energized after playing poorly for months. The trio went into the Penguins game with a combined 38 points in their previous nine games.
The Sabres beat the Capitals on Tuesday to take a grip on eighth place by virtue of a game in hand. After Friday's game against the Penguins, the Sabres, Caps and Senators will all have four games left in the regular season.
"We've talked about it for almost two months now of not getting too excited after wins and enjoying the win and putting it away," Ruff told The Buffalo News. "I think we've done a good job of that. We knew that [Capitals]game was like a four-pointer. That was a game we wanted to get, and we got it."