It’s almost Thanksgiving in the United States and the Buffalo Sabres are not out of the playoff picture yet. The feel around the hockey club is different this year. They’re fun again and have the look of a legitimate NHL team for the first time in a long time.
After another wild win over the weekend, the Sabres enter play tonight with 20 points and occupy a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. They’re also only two points out of second place in the Atlantic division.
Over the first 17 games, the Sabres have had some nice wins and played well enough to allow themselves to be in a good spot 20 percent of the way through the season. A win is a win and two points are two points, regardless of who they come against. As the old saying goes; they don’t ask “how”, they ask “how many?”
Taking a step out of the excitement and looking at the big picture, the Sabres have only defeated two teams that are currently in a playoff spot, in the Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks. The other six wins this season have come against teams that have a combined .400 winning percentage.
Again, I’m not trying to take anything away from what they’ve done so far, but I’m setting the stage for how the next 10 game stretch will give us a real idea of the type of team we have here.
Are they a potential playoff team or a considerably team improved over last season?
Before we get into the next 10 games, let me pump up the importance of them a little bit more. At the end of play on November 30th, the majority of teams that make the playoffs that season occupy playoff positions at that time.
- 2016-17: 14 of the 16 playoff teams (Leafs and Flames did not) occupied playoff spots at the end of November.
No team has made the playoffs over the last three years that were more than five points out of a playoff position at the end of November. Only three teams made it that were more than three points out in the Leafs (5), Flyers (5), and Panthers (4).
Heading towards that pivotal date, the Sabres will get their biggest test of the season over the next 10 games. Their opponents over that stretch hold a .540 winning percentage entering play tonight. They’ll play these 10 games over 19 days, with four being played on home ice and the other six on the road.
If you want to narrow the view, the next five games are where the tone could be set for the rest of the month. The Sabres will matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Winnipeg Jets, Minnesota Wild, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Philadelphia Flyers. They combine for a .598 winning percentage so far this season.
Three of those five games will come on the road and the easiest opponent according to the standings is the Penguins.
However, the Sabres have not won a game in Pittsburgh since April 23rd, 2013, and have been outscored 35-19 in eight games played in that city since that last win. They’ve only beat the Penguins once in the last five years overall.
With the good start the bar has been raised on the expectations for this season. Having said that, if the Sabres walked out of November with 10 or 12 of a possible 20 points (5-3-2) in the final 10 games of the month, that would be considered a huge success in my book.
At the end of this month we’ll only be 33 percent through the season, but recent history tells us that we’ll have a good idea of what type of year the Sabres will be looking at over the next few weeks.