It's that time of year when the standings finally begin to shake out, stratifying the bracket into three distinct groups: the postseason locks, the middle-of-the-pack teams still fighting for spots or jockeying for position, and the remaining clubs whose playoff hopes are all but extinguished.
A spirit-sapping 4-1 road loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday pretty much sealed their fate, leaving the Sabres -- now six points back -- with little to play for in the remaining seven games of their season.
And it showed Thursday in a flat and uninspired effort against the Northeast Division-leading Canadiens, who became the second Eastern Conference team (joining the Pittsburgh Penguins) to clinch a postseason berth.
All that remains on the line for the Sabres is pride, and against Montreal they showed very little. Outshot 42-15, Buffalo players sounded both ashamed and awed at just how little effort they exhibited -- in front of a home crowd, no less.
Consider these damning statements uttered from within the bowels of the Sabres' dressing room after the game:
"It was the worst effort the Buffalo Sabres have put on the ice since I've been a part of it," 23-year-old defenseman Tyler Myers said, according to the Buffalo News. Myers is in his fourth season with the Sabres.
And this from goaltender Ryan Miller, who is never shy about sharing his opinions: "We got our butts kicked."
According to several reports, the Sabres were all stapled to their stalls when the dressing room was opened following a closed-door meeting, showing an accountability they lacked on the ice.
Even in a lockout-shortened season, when parity provides pretty much every team a chance to rise from the dead and make a viable playoff push (Exhibit A: the Washington Capitals), there comes a time when reality sinks in and false hope disappears.
It's a depressing time for those teams, obviously, but it provides an interesting glimpse into the character of the club. Do players hustle and compete for jobs, trying to salvage some pride? Do they relish the opportunity to play spoiler in the last weeks of the season? Or do they go through the motions, entertaining thoughts of early-May tee times?
We already saw this frustration manifested this week, when Colorado Avalanche goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere blasted his teammates for packing it in and looking ahead to their upcoming Vegas vacation instead of their next game.
The Avs responded to Giguere's pointed rant with a 4-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks two nights later (incidentally, that rant could end up costing the Avs the No. 1 pick in the draft!), showing that their fight had not been completely snuffed out.
The Sabres will have a chance to rally from Thursday's debacle and prove they are not going to simply watch the sand pass through the hourglass. And to their credit, it seemed that to a man they were humiliated by the loss and took full responsibility.
Perhaps that is because it's implicitly understood that everyone is being evaluated now -- from interim coach Ron Rolston to Miller to the rest of the team's veteran leaders and on down the lineup.
The Sabres' next game, Saturday at home against the Philadelphia Flyers, will be telling. Will a listless squad show up, or one that is up for the fight?