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At the break: Sabres path to the playoffs

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How the Sabres come out after the All-Star break will play a huge role in their pursuit of a playoff spot

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

The contrast between the Buffalo Sabres’ high-points and low-points this season has been rather extreme. At the end of November, a playoff birth seemed like a near-certainty after the team managed to pull-off ten consecutive wins. They even spent a brief period of time with the most points in the league. Fans were obviously thrilled given the fact that most of them had Buffalo pegged as a .500 team to start the season.

In the 22 games that have followed the streak’s conclusion (which came against the Tampa Bay Lightning on November 29), the Sabres have posted a record of 7-11-4 and find themselves four points out of playoff position at the bye. As a result, fan morale has taken a nosedive and the franchise’s seven-year playoff drought seems more and more likely to extend into 2019-20.

But it’s not over yet. Not by a long-shot.

Over their next 11 games, Buffalo not only has a seven-game home-stand to start the month of February, but also a very winnable slate of opponents. In fact, the next 11 teams that they play hold a combined record of 251-221-59. Only four of those teams are currently in playoff position (Winnipeg Jets, New York Islanders, Columbus Blue Jackets and Dallas Stars). Sounds like a great opportunity to regain some ground in a crowded Eastern Conference playoff race.

Because there isn’t much else we can do at this point, let’s get hypothetical.

For kicks, let’s just say that over the next 11 games, the Sabres win against the current playoff outsiders, and lose against Winnipeg, Dallas, Columbus and New York (we’ll leave out shootout/overtime losses. This practice is arbitrary enough as it is). That would bring their record to 31-22-6. So, with 68 points through 59 games, they’d be on pace to finish the year with 94.5 points. Not bad, but would that be enough?

The Montreal Canadiens (the Eastern Conference team with the lowest “points per game-played” percentage) are on pace to finish with around 96 points. Obviously, a whole lot can happen between now and the end of the year, but that’s where things currently stand.

So, why are the next 11 games particularly critical? The answer lies in what comes after. Over the last 23 games of the season, Buffalo will square-off with 14 teams that are currently in playoff position. Fortunately, eight of the games against playoff teams are on home ice where the Sabres have posted a record of 14-6-3 this season. Still, the road to the finish line will be treacherous.

If they fail to win the games that they theoretically “should win” in a relatively easy stretch after the break, then we might be talking about mock drafts and lottery odds before the end of February (if you just felt yourself cringe into oblivion, take solace in the fact that you’re not alone).

After what we’ve seen from the blue-and-gold as of late, the prospect of them “taking care of business” in winnable games seems somewhat far-fetched. The good news is that, despite going 3-6-1 in their last ten games, the Sabres are actually trending up from an expected goal-differential standpoint.

The fact that the Sabres are hovering around the middle for the first time since November is a good thing. If they can continue their current trajectory, they should stay in the thick of things until the very end. Again though, that’s a pretty big “if” considering how inconsistent they’ve been in that regard all season (as evidenced by the chart above).

Either way, the Sabres’ performance over the next 11 games will ultimately dictate whether or not they’re going to be relevant through the end of the 2018-19 campaign. They’ve been surrendering points for too long to experience another stretch where winnable games are squandered.

An extended rest will hopefully bode well for a young team that appears to have desperately needed one. Now is the time for the Sabres to hit their stride, and prove to the hockey world that their November performance was not a complete aberration.