A Late Season Look at the Sabres’ Playoff Prospects

<em>Thanks to major improvements, Buffalo could finally end its postseason drought.</em>

Last July, in, Can the Sabres Finally End Their Playoff Drought?, I examined the team’s NHL Draft and free agency moves and looked at the franchise’s weak points. I felt that if Buffalo could keep up the production level the Sabres showed in the final two months of 2021-22, the team had a shot at the postseason. I also believed the roster needed a new captain and reliable goaltending.

With a little over two months to go this season, how is the team doing? Let’s explore some factors that could help the Sabres make the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

1)  Goaltending

Over the past year, the Buffalo Sabres resigned veteran netminder Craig Anderson, signed goalie Eric Comrie and gave rookie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen a two-year deal. GM Kevyn Adams planned to make Comrie the starting goaltender, with Anderson the backup.

However, after Comrie suffered a lower-body injury against the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 17, Adams recalled UPL from the Rochester Amerks and Luukkonen was quickly thrust into a starting role.

Over the past several months, No. 1 proved his doubters wrong, enjoying a 13-6 win loss record, a 3.30 GAA and an .899 SV%. While his SV% isn’t as high as previous seasons, UPL earned his place as an NHL starter, helping win close contests and shoring up Buffalo’s longstanding netminding weakness.

2)  Offense

Sabres center Tage Thompson is having a record season, scoring 34 goals, 34 assists and 68 total points in 2022-23. TNT is just four goals away from tying last year’s scoring total, at 38 goals.

Linemate Alex Tuch also stepped up production, with 24 goals and 31 assists since October, double his previous year’s scoring total and four goals above his best season in Vegas. Veteran forward Jeff Skinner, while not getting as many goals as last season so far, is tied with assists and really seems to click with Thompson and Tuch on Buffalo’s top offensive line.

Dylan Cozens improved, too, getting 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points since the season started. The Workhorse from Whitehorse already surpassed his stats from last year and the Sabres just gave the scrappy center a new seven-year, $49.7 million deal, a huge vote of confidence in the young forward.

Cozens, along with Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka on the “Kid Line”, have been creating chances and getting goals all season. One of their best performances was on Dec. 5, when the trio made three goals and three assists in a 6-3 victory over the San Jose Sharks. These kids will only continue to get better the longer they’re in the NHL.

Victor Olofsson keeps improving, too, with 23 goals and six assists in 2022-23. Goalofsson continues to produce each season, with a tied 78 career goals and assists. Not bad for a seventh round draft pick.

3)  Defense

Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin already scored more goals and assists than his previous season, breaking a record for the offensive-minded d-man. Naysayers once wrote No. 26 off, but he’s more than shown his ability in recent years.

While he hasn’t passed his shots on goal number yet, his shooting percentage increased since last year, from 7.6 to 9.9. No wonder Dahlin took Thompson’s place in the NHL All-Star Weekend, beating Alex Ovechkin in the hardest shot competition and coming in only second to Vancouver Canucks forward Elias Pettersson.

Fellow defenseman Owen Power also turned into a major asset, with 76 shots on goal, 57 blocked shots and a 3.9 S%. He’s only made three goals and 16 assists this season, but Power has lived up to the hype, a solid on-ice presence Buffalo lacked for many moons.

Walt Zurowksi of The Charging Buffalo explored Power’s prowess back in December and found that with No. 25 on the ice, the Sabres scored 4.17 goals per game vs. 2.37 goals per game without him. It’s clear the league’s No. 1 draft pick in 2021 was one of Buffalo’s best recent acquisitions.

4)  Captain

Fans widely agree Jack Eichel never should have worn a C on his sweater. After the Sabres stripped him of his title and traded him, the team didn’t have a leader until the team named Kyle Okposo the new captain at the start of this season, with Dahlin and Zemgus Girgensons as alternates.

Okposo, with his maturity, longevity with the Sabres and leadership on and off the ice, was the right choice to lead the players. Unlike the previous captain, it’s not about him, it’s about the team, being there for each other and playing through adversity.

The Buffalo Sabres made dramatic strides this past year and sports pundits are starting to take notice. Adam Proteau of The Hockey News predicted the Blue and Gold will stay in the playoff race until the regular season ends, surprising wild card opponents Pittsburgh and Washington and making some major moves by the trade deadline. Proteau likes Buffalo’s postseason chances.

Andy MacNeil of VSiN.com gave the team a 41% chance of making the playoffs. Just one point behind the Pens and four back of the Caps, the Sabres have two games in hand on the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers, who are chasing them for a postseason berth.

MacNeil believes UPL needs to step up in remaining matchups and players like Thompson and Dahlin must keep leading the team in offense and defense. If they do, Dahlin could win the Norris Trophy and Buffalo might finally play games in May.

What do you think?

Will the Sabres finally end their playoff drought this season?

A. Yes, the team has what it takes to make it.280
B. No, Buffalo can’t get it done once again.72
C. Maybe, check back with me in April.264