Play-in Game?

Posted on March 27, 2012, 5:58 am by

The Sabres are in Washington tonight to take on the Capitals in a battle for outright possession of the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. The two teams are currently tied in the standings for points, but because Washington holds the tiebreaker, Buffalo will need to actually unseat them to make playoffs– a tie won’t cut it. A four-point game at this time of year has the potential to end one of these teams’ season, and spur the other on a one-way track to the post-season.

Buffalo enters the game with a ton of momentum, having won nine of thirteen games in March thus far, including four in a row this past week. The Marcus Foligno, Tyler Ennis, and Drew Stafford trio has been absolutely on fire as of late, but they finally got some relief when Thomas Vanek and Cody Hodgson converted against the Wild. Foligno, however, managed to net the game winning goal, making that his sixth goal in just nine games for the Sabres this season.

It’s incredible what a little depth can do for a team. Two months ago, we had Derek Roy and Paul Gaustad as our only two natural centermen. Trading Goose was a foregone conclusion, but nobody really saw the Hodgson acquisition coming. It’s paid off in big ways already, as it gives the Sabres three centermen that I would consider “Top 6″ talent.

The trade temporarily forced Ennis out of the center position that he had been occupying for a short time, but nobody could deny the potential he exhibited while playing pivot. It was obvious that that’s where he belonged, so Lindy Ruff put him between Stafford and Foligno and the line has since exploded.

Similar to how Jordan Stall is technically a “third line” center in Pittsburgh (at times) despite his immeasurable talent, Derek Roy (or Ennis or Hodgson, depending how you view the lines) is now occupying the third line center role with Jason Pominville and Ville Leino on his wings. On paper, that figures to be one of the better looking “third lines” in the league, behind the Vanek\Hodgson\Tropp and Ennis\Stafford\Foligno combinations.

When you have the ability to roll three dangerous lines and play a constant high-tempo game, your chances of winning increase exponentially.

It also helps to have a hot goaltender, and Ryan Miller kept on sizzling on Saturday, earning another victory in a 24-save performance against Minnesota. Miller is 13-1-3 since a February 19th win over the Penguins. After shutting out Montreal last week, he set a new career high with 6 shutouts, five of which have come post-All Star break.

He’s certainly had a lot to do with the recent playoff push, but the Sabres may need another stellar performance to overcome Washington’s star-studded lineup.

The Capitals, though not finding the win column as much as of late, have shown signs of being a legit playoff contender. They’re only 2-1-2 in their last five, but most importantly, their captain Alex Ovechkin has finally been producing the way the world knows he can. Ovechkin has scored 10 goals in the month of March, seven of which have come in their last five games. That could be bad news for the Sabres: The “Great Eight” has historically been a Sabre-killer, scoring 17 goals and adding 12 assists in 26 career games vs Buffalo.

Rookie goaltender Brayden Holtby has manned the pipes for the Capitals the last three games, and will probably go again tonight. He’s performed quite admirably in relief of the injured Thomas Vokoun, earning two wins and taking Philly to overtime before dropping a 2-1 decision. He’s posted a .927% save percentage through four games this season.

Vokoun is still “the guy” in Washington, but goaltending is always a question for the Capitals. Another strong performance and they may have a controversy on their hands.

For the Sabres, this game is as close to a “must-win” game as it can be without literally being a “must-win” game. Even if the Sabres lose in regulation to the Capitals tonight, there are enough games left that they could feasibly rebound and still sneak into the playoffs. However, if you give Washington a two-point lead when your schedule reads: vs Pittsburgh, @ Toronto, vs Toronto, @ Philly, and @ Boston, … you’re pretty much staring elimination in the face. Those are five tough, tough games.

Tonight could be the season’s first “play-in” game. The winner, of course, isn’t guaranteed a playoff spot just yet, but they’ll be well on their way to doing so.

 


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