This is it for the Buffalo Sabres. The last stand. There really is no tomorrow. They are seven points out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with nine games left, five of them on the road.
Their 5-3 comeback win over Florida on Wednesday night must be the beginning of a serious roll if the Sabres are to have any chance.
First things first: Buffalo needs to beat the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday night and then head into Montreal on Saturday and take a must-win game against the team holding on to the eighth spot in the East. And that's just to stay close.
"Our last game was a must-win game, and for us to battle back and get two points and not let Florida get any points was huge," veteran Sabres winger Jason Pominville told ESPN.com on Thursday. "We know along the way we're probably going to need some help. But on the other side, we have to take care of our business, and that's winning games. We've got one, and now we need to put a streak together."
We'll be the first to admit we're a little surprised it has become this desperate a situation for the Sabres. When we went in there in early February, we were absolutely convinced they were on the right track, and wrote a column Feb. 5 saying so. But losing top goal scorer Thomas Vanek for nearly a month from Feb. 7 to March 4 was a blow, as was losing star goalie Ryan Miller for more than a month. They just didn't recover from those injuries.
"We lost Ryan and Thomas, two key parts to our team, and we kind of went through a tough period where we were losing games against teams that were below us in the standings," said Pominville, referring no doubt to a 4-3 overtime loss to Atlanta earlier this month. "Those are points that you need and games you should be able to win. Those are points at the end of the day that may make a big difference."
The good news is, Miller is likely back Friday night against the Leafs, his first start since injuring his ankle Feb. 21. The Sabres went 4-7-2 without him and slid down the standings.
"We're all excited about that. Ryan has been unbelievable for us," Pominville said. "He's a big part of the team. Hopefully, he's going step in and help us win some games."
The numbers just don't add up to a team that should miss the playoffs. The Sabres are top 10 in both the power play (seventh) and the penalty kill (ninth), usually a double whammy that bodes well. They rank 14th overall in the league in goals per game and 16th in goals against; not great, but certainly not bad.
Where there's a hole, and perhaps even a gaping hole, is leadership. Let's put it this way: How many teams do you know that acquire a player in the offseason and then anoint the new guy as captain? That's what happened with Craig Rivet last summer. We actually think Rivet is a strong leader, but the point is, where is the rest of the leadership?
Vanek, for example, needs to show more leadership. From this vantage point, it speaks volumes that coach Lindy Ruff, this late in the season, felt compelled to essentially bench Vanek in the third period Wednesday night. Let's see how Vanek responds against the Leafs.
There are nine games left in the Sabres' season. Will we be left with more questions than answers at the end of it?