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Hamilton Take 2: A development year for the Buffalo Sabres

WGRZ Sabres/NHL insider Paul Hamilton shares his thoughts on the Sabres' playoff push with just 5 games left in the regular season.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — OK, raise your hand if last September you had the Sabres still fighting for a playoff spot on April 8. I certainly didn’t.

I felt this was a development year with next year being the playoffs. It certainly has been, but important games right up to the last week of the regular season is a bonus for this team.

Unfortunately, the eight-game losing streak in November where the Sabres didn’t even get a loser point will likely be too much to overcome, but they are taking a lot of lessons from this season that they’ll need to apply to next year.

After having a tough 12 games where the team buckled under the pressure of the race, lately they haven’t played their best hockey, but they’ve found a way to go 5-1-1 in seven games. Unfortunately, the loss was a 2-1 killer to the Florida Panthers. The game was there for the Sabres, but they just couldn’t get to their game until it was too late.

The overtime loss was also one that never should’ve happened. Buffalo had a 3-2 lead in the third period over the lowly Montreal Canadiens and wound up losing in overtime. Still, picking up 11 out of 14 points is pretty much as good as you could hope for.

Thursday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings was a great example of finding a way. There were times in that game that the team was stellar. There were times in that game when they were up 6-4 that all they did was turn the puck over, but when it was all said and done, they dominated the overtime and Devon Levi, Jack Quinn, and Alex Tuch came up big in the shootout when they were needed the most. 

The playoffs are a huge long shot because there are only five games remaining, and Buffalo is still six points in back of both Florida and the New York Islanders. If Buffalo happens to lose in regulation on Saturday, there is a scenario where they could be eliminated.

The goaltending moving forward is interesting too. Yes, Levi gave up six goals to the Red Wings, but only one was on him. That was David Perron’s one-timer to tie the game with one-minute left in regulation. Levi wasn’t screened and just missed it. The other nine goals against him in his NHL career have been deflections, players left wide open for tap-ins, or pucks going in over legs.

Levi is coming off two years in college where he played on Friday and Saturday and they practiced until the next Friday. You have to wonder when does fatigue set in now? Does he have the energy to play three games in six days? Right now, Levi’s the best goalie they have, but is he still the best if he’s fatigued?

Don Granato said, “You’re gauging just that, fatigue. I do feel now he’s in a rhythm within the game and now it’s straight up, how exhausting was the game, how many shots, how taxing, so he’s emotionally settled in and we’ll take it day-by-day.”

Friday’s practice was an optional, and Levi was given the day off.

I thought Granato did an excellent job of maximizing what he could get out of the injured Tage Thompson on Thursday. Buffalo dearly needs its 45-goal scorer. He played center Tuesday in Florida, and you could tell he struggled. Granato decided to put him on the wing and let Dylan Cozens be his center.

It’s less stress on Thompson’s body and there was an immediate chemistry. Casey Mittelstadt had been playing well with Jeff Skinner and Tuch and that continued on Thursday. Mittelstadt helped create a lot of good scoring chances and added two assists giving him nine in his last six games.

In the end, the playoff race could be coming to an end and that would mean the Sabres chances would end in the second week in April, not the middle of December like they have in the past decade. Next year, close will not be remotely good enough.

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