Sabres are having *that* season

The quality of team may be debatable, but its record is not

Mike Schopp
November 28, 2018 - 10:21 am

Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig - USA TODAY Sports

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As another year of snow makes its return to Buffalo, the ice around its hockey team is finally melting.

The relative level of fan enthusiasm for the Sabres in recent years has been buried beneath a sort of tundra. Season after season of frustration and boredom had taken its toll. After riding waves for some down years after playoff teams and later an ownership change, it seemed right toward the end of 2017-18 to wonder what the bottom looked like, and whether we were there.

Then, suddenly: Ten wins in a row in November. A surreal series of games. Seven wins in overtime or a shootout. Wins over top quality in Tampa Bay, Winnipeg and San Jose. Two comeback overtime wins over rival Montreal. A four-goal, first-period flurry against Philadelphia that evoked specific memories of the 2006 playoffs.

It's all really happened, and with very little warning. The Sabres in their first month appeared competent, but nowhere near dominant. In most statistics the Sabres rated as average, which of course was already a big improvement.

It's correct to acknowledge that an average team in the modern NHL can go on a run like this. Columbus won 16 straight games two seasons ago; in the rest of its games the Blue Jackets were 36-24-8, and in Round 1 of the playoffs they lost to Pittsburgh in five games. 

And as striking as the Sabres' jump has been from the bottom to the top, we've also seen teams do likewise on a fairly regular basis. In 2016-17 New Jersey finished last in the East and Colorado last in the West; the next season they were both in the playoffs.

Finally it's Buffalo's turn to have that season.

Going back a few years Sabres fans might recall several seasons where the team went along just below the middle. The months moved by and the Sabres would seem within reach of the playoffs but never quite able to get there. There's a lesson in that, one that applies now. A few points out -- even as early as this season is now -- is more than it seems. There are other teams obstructing an ascent like that. Further, teams can lose games and still get half-value, in the form of the "loser point". As the season goes along it becomes harder and harder to climb.

Good news for me and you: That works both ways. These Sabres have 36 points in 25 games -- which, by the way, is an astonishing 118-point pace that rates in President's Trophy territory. With 57 games left, averaging one point per game for the rest of the season would put the Sabres at 93. Projections for this season and historical references make 93 at worst within a game or two of a playoff spot. And, that point-a-game pace is just a tad better than what the worst teams in the league so far are playing at. So if the Sabres' results the rest of the way are comparable to, say, Florida's so far this season, they're very likely to be in the playoffs.

If the Sabres are notably better than that, the playoffs will be a given by Groundhog Day.

How good are they? I'd say the answer to that doesn't do much good right now. Their place in the standings makes spring hockey seem likely this year, and the team offers reasons to think it'll improve. The amazing Rasmus Dahlin -- 18 years of age until April -- is now starting to see his ice time climbing, which is great news. Jack Eichel through 25 games is shooting at 4.9-percent; his low season through three years was 9.6-percent. (Yes, Jeff Skinner is this story in reverse.) The good goaltending the Sabres have gotten seems legit, and while Carter Hutton has been very good I think Linus Ullmark is poised to earn more playing time.

The Sabres may have 2019 first-round picks from San Jose and St. Louis, plus their own. The way their world for years has been draft picks, I'd be surprised if they didn't spend one or more this February on a trade to help them this year. They're in really great shape.

It's so much fun to see the building be back alive as it has been, the fan base rejuvenated. The playoffs are looking more and more like reality, and with that the miserable last few seasons a foggy memory.

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