BUFFALO – Having survived so long and stared down elimination so many times recently, a sense of destiny accompanies the Sabres’ unlikely charge toward the postseason. Six months and 80 games into the season, they’ve refused to die.
Lindy Ruff hopes the Sabres’ story gets to be told like all those other celebrated longshot playoff teams.
“There’s a lot of great stories in sports about teams making it the last day,” the coach said Wednesday after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s huge tilt in Philadelphia against the Flyers. “The recent ones in football, baseball – you name it. Even the Flyers win in a shootout a couple years ago to end the season and then go to the Stanley Cup finals.
“There’s lot of good stories. We’d like to have one of those written about us.”
The ninth-place Sabres, still locked in a points tie (88) with the Washington Capitals, should get a nice story if they nab the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot.
They’ve fallen in and out of eighth place recently after spending more than three months out of the chase. They lost twice over the weekend, dropping to ninth again.
They looked cooked.
On Monday, Washington, which owns the tiebreaker over the Sabres, frittered away a surefire point in Tampa Bay.
Then the Sabres roared back Tuesday against Toronto, downing the Maples Leafs 6-5 in overtime after trailing 3-0 early and 5-3 late.
“Given the way the season played out and the kind of experience we have, I think we are prepared for a situation like this where our backs are against the wall,” Sabres goalie Ryan Miller said inside the First Niagara Center.
The Sabres, of course, need help. Winning their final two tilts – they finish Saturday in Boston – won’t secure a spot.
The Capitals host Florida tonight and close Saturday in New York against the Rangers.
The Sabres’ run could end tonight, though.
“Yeah, we need some help,” Miller said. “We’ve been helping ourselves for a few months now. It’s gotten us back to where no one thought we’d have a chance. We do have a chance.
“If you told me three, four months ago we’d have a chance in the last few games, I would’ve taken it.”
The Flyers ran the Sabres out of Philadelphia in their last visit Feb. 16, scoring seven unanswered goals in a 7-2 win. The Sabres are a much more complete and confident bunch today, however.
With 47 goals in the last 12 games, they’re finally scoring. Winger Marcus Foligno and defenseman Brayden McNabb have added two fearsome physical edges, something they’ll need to showcase tonight against the rough-and-tumble Flyers.
“Nice to see they’re engaged,” Miller said about the rookies. “They bring us energy. Going into Philly you can’t back away.”
Neither backed away Tuesday. Foligno’s big hit behind the net knocked Carl Gunnarsson out of game during the first shift, a harbinger for the rest of the game.
Foligno used his 6-foot-2, 215-pound body throughout, wreaking havoc and getting under the Leafs’ skin. He fought Matt Frattin later. His aggressiveness and physicality down low created Jordan Leopold’s memorable tying goal in the crease.
“Those are the fun games,” Foligno said. “Those are the games where you’re into them. I think when I’m into most of my games like (Tuesday), I’m pretty dangerous. I kind of get woken up. It’s fun to play in those games. It’s what hockey’s all about. The more they focus on me, the more space it will leave for other players.”
McNabb, meanwhile, fought Jay Rosehill after leveling Matthew Lombardi.
“I don’t know if you anticipate a young player like McNabb taking on Toronto’s tough guy,” Ruff said. “But he did a hell of a job with him. I thought both players did a tremendous job physically in the game. I thought McNabb defended well, which we saw earlier in his stint here.
“They’ve both given us some size. They’ve given us some grit. I think that the confidence level of both players is going up.”
Despite their scoring prowess, the Sabres don’t want a track meet with the slick Flyers, who average 3.2 goals a game, second overall.
The Sabres have allowed 14 scores in the past three games, as many they had in their previous seven.
They clearly miss top defender Christian Ehrhoff (knee) and Tyler Myers (foot), who are both out the rest of the regular season.
Ruff counted 16 or 17 scoring chances by the Leafs. He wants that number down to about 10 tonight.
“We do have to have to tighten up,” Ruff said. “There’s no secret.”
Still, Miller, who hadn’t allowed five goals since Jan. 16 in Detroit, played well, making several game-saving stops.
“If you look at some of the opportunities we gave up,” Ruff said, “the game could’ve been over several times.”
The same could be said about the Sabres’ season.