When the Buffalo Sabres were going through their bleakest point of the season a few months ago, coach Lindy Ruff kept insisting the team still had a pretty good shot at making the playoffs.
It was a tough sell though because the Sabres had limped into the Christmas break six games under .500 while managing to snap a seven-game losing streak just before the holiday not with a victory, but with a tie in which they had blown a two-goal lead. And since Buffalo was the league's youngest team along with being not that far removed from a host of assorted off-ice problems, the potential for success this season seemed at best unrealistic.
|Adam Mair (right) and the resurgent Sabres are taking on all comers.(AP)|
The Sabres have not only turned into the league's hottest team of late, they are the most potent as well and are knocking on the door of a playoff pack in the Eastern Conference. Buffalo has won four straight and eight of its past nine, scoring 21 goals in its past three games. They've moved within four points of a playoff spot and a first postseason appearance in three years for a franchise that only a year ago was closer to folding than to getting a chance at the NHL's biggest prize.
It's a far cry from where things were last season when former owner John Rigas was carted off in handcuffs, forcing the team into bankruptcy and to be run by the league. Yet Ruff sounds like someone who is wondering what all the fuss is about.
"When we went through that rough spell in December, it wasn't that we were playing terribly bad, we just didn't win," he said. "We dominated three or four of those games, but we ran into good goaltending and couldn't score. It was our lack of ability to finish that really hurt us."
Not anymore. The Sabres overcame deficits to beat the Kings 8-3 on Friday and the Maple Leafs 6-4 the following night, before demolishing Atlanta 7-2 on Monday behind a four-goal effort from Miroslav Satan. They are clicking 5-on-5, they've scored on 13 of their last 40 power-play tries and haven't slacked off when it comes to their defensive responsibilities either. Buffalo's goaltending from Martin Biron and Mika Noronen is better than it has been all season.
In other words, all the pieces are working in tandem these days. Ruff says that's the result of the stability and support brought by new owner Tom Golisano and a core group of players like Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, J.P. Dumont and Dmitri Kalinin stepping up and taking charge.
"These guys hate to lose and you've got to give those players credit for continuing to battle when things were going bad," Ruff said. "We needed to go on a tear to get back into the race and we did because they led the way by believing in themselves and in the system."
Even if that system has changed somewhat lately. A defensive-minded coach by nature, Ruff has generally not had the luxury of a powerful offense during his seven years behind the Sabres bench. Buffalo has averaged slightly more than 2.5 goals per game during Ruff's tenure, although for his first four seasons, he had a pretty good equalizer named Dominik Hasek.
"In those days we could get outshot 48-18 and still win 2-1," Ruff said.
Those were the kinds of tight-checking, low-scoring games that Ruff seemed to prefer. But during the All-Star break he reviewed videos of the team's attack and decided more aggressiveness was needed, even with a lineup that is not particularly big.
"As much back-checking pressure as there is in today's game, if we don't drive the lane to the net, there's not a lot that happens," he said. "We're not that big, but we've got good speed and when we do drive the lane, good things have happened."
With more to come, according to the players.
"Scoring like we have the last few games, who wouldn't be confident?" said Briere, the team's leading scorer and the captain for February. "We said we wanted to be the best team after the All-Star break, and so far that's how we're going. We don't want to get too high because we haven't really accomplished anything yet, but right now we feel like we can beat anybody.
"We might as well ride the wave while it's going."