Sabres’ loss to Red Wings puts damper on their last-gasp playoff push

The Buffalo Sabres are trying to do something that’s never been done.

On March 8, the Sabres were nine points out of a playoff position with 64 games played. According to NHL Stats and Research, no one in NHL history has ever made the playoffs after being nine points out of a spot through 64 games. The furthest back a team has come after 64 games played is eight points when the 1985-86 Hartford Whalers closed an eight-point gap to make the playoffs. They were in fifth place of the Adams Division through 64 games but went 11-3-2 the rest of the season while the Sabres went 6-9 to close the season, causing the Whalers to jump them in the standings.

That’s the history the Sabres were working against on NHL trade deadline day, which is why general manager Kevyn Adams traded veterans like Kyle Okposo and Erik Johnson. Yet, three games later, the Sabres were only three points behind the Islanders and Red Wings for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. That’s what made the team’s Saturday trip to Detroit a crucial one for their last-gasp playoff push. According to Money Puck, a win in regulation would have improved the Sabres’ playoff chances to 11.3 percent. But after three straight convincing wins at home, the Sabres’ winning streak ended with a 4-1 loss in Detroit, dropping their playoff chances to 3.7 percent.

Buffalo’s margin for error in this playoff race is as slim as it gets, and it got even slimmer on Saturday afternoon. With the loss, the Sabres are five points behind the Red Wings, who still have a game in hand. They’re also four points behind the Islanders, who have two games in hand and two points behind the Capitals, who have three games in hand. That’s not a pretty picture as the Sabres continue their daunting five-game road trip with games in Seattle, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary.

“We don’t really have time to dwell on it,” Tage Thompson told reporters after the game.

This loss doesn’t erase the impressive stretch of games the Sabres played recently, but it underscores how deep a hole they dug themselves with their play early in the season. Since Jan. 1, the Sabres have played at a 95-point pace. Up until that point in the season, though, the Sabres were playing at a 73-point pace. That’s why this game on March 16 was close to a must-win game for the Sabres. If you’re playing too many must-win games in March, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

And on Saturday, the Red Wings were the team that looked more desperate. Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin said as much after the game. The Red Wings came into this game on a seven-game losing streak that put a dent in their playoff chances. The Sabres got an early 1-0 lead in a strong first period, but the Red Wings got off the mat in the second period and wrestled away control of the game. The Red Wings had a 13-7 advantage in scoring chances in the second period, and they cashed in on two of those. Christian Fischer outmuscled Dahlin to the front of the net and slid the puck between Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen’s legs. Then Patrick Kane converted a chance late in the second period to put the Red Wings up 2-1.

“They came out desperate and really wanted it,” Dahlin said. “We were kind of on our heels and never really came back.”

The Sabres have spent too much of this season on their heels. That’s why they’ve been unable to win four games in a row and have hovered around .500 most of the season. Only in the last few weeks have they more consistently played with the pace that became their identity last season. That was particularly noticeable during the recent three-game winning streak. That brought a buzz to the locker room and the fan base. The 12-year playoff drought has fans clinging to any semblance of meaningful hockey in March. But Saturday may have been the last of it this season. The Sabres will need a heck of a run out west — and some help from the teams around them in the standings — if their next home game, March 27 against the Senators, is going to have significance in the standings.

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Buffalo’s best players needed to be better on Saturday against Detroit. (Rick Osentoski / USA Today)

Quick hits

1. This was a tough game for the Dahlin-Bo Byram pair. Dahlin was minus-4, and Byram was minus-3. When those two were on the ice at five-on-five, the Sabres had zero high-danger scoring chances and allowed four high-danger chances against. They’ve been a stellar pair since Byram joined the Sabres, but this was a bad time for a game like this. It wasn’t just them, though. Alex Tuch and Tage Thompson were both minus-2, and Dylan Cozens had just one shot attempt at five-on-five. Buffalo’s best players needed to be better on Saturday.

2. Jordan Greenway led the Sabres with nine shot attempts and seven individual scoring chances in this game. He’s been a tone-setter for the Sabres as the team has tried to push for the playoffs. His defensive game has been solid all season, and he’s one of the main reasons for Buffalo’s improvement on the penalty kill. But Greenway is making an impact in the offensive zone more as the season has gone on. He couldn’t convert on his chances in this game, but the Sabres shouldn’t be counting on Greenway to be a main scorer, either.

3. The Sabres officially called up goalie Devon Levi on Saturday afternoon. He’s 11-5-3 with a 2.52 goals against average and .927 save percentage in the AHL this season but hasn’t played in the NHL since Jan. 24 in Los Angeles. Luukkonen has been handling most of the games for Buffalo and doing so at a high level. But the team has back-to-back games in Seattle and Vancouver on Monday and Tuesday, so the Sabres will need to use another goalie. Backup Eric Comrie hasn’t been sharp in his last two starts, so Levi likely gives the team the better chance to win. He can also play one game on the trip and head back to Rochester to continue to get AHL reps if the team wants to go that route.

(Top photo: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

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