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Sabres positioned for unlikely run at postseason

BUFFALO – Go ahead, pick the dates the underachieving Sabres appeared finished and primed to play out the string for a lottery pick.

There are plenty, you know.

There was that embarrassing 5-0 dismantling Jan. 16 in Detroit, after which an emotional Ryan Miller said a trade wouldn’t help the Sabres. Two nights later, the Blackhawks throttled them 6-2 in Chicago, the third of five straight losses on a six game-trip.

On Feb. 16, the Flyers ran them out of Philadelphia, scoring seven straight goals in a 7-2 drubbing. The next night at home, the Sabres’ fourth consecutive loss, a 4-3 shootout to Montreal, kicked them into 15th place, nine points back of the final playoff spot.

Somehow, the Sabres, who host the Carolina Hurricanes tonight at the First Niagara Center, keep bouncing back from each disastrous stretch.

A triumph Monday in Winnipeg against the Jets would’ve propelled them into eighth place for the first time since Dec. 19. The Sabres fell 3-1.

Still, their 3-1-1 road trip, which included three Pacific time zone wins, a franchise first, has positioned the Sabres for an unlikely run at the final playoff spot.

It’ll be an arduous task, however.

Right now, the 11th-place Sabres (68 points) trail Winnipeg (72) by four with a game in hand. The Jets are on an 88-point pace, so the Sabres could need around 21 points in their final 16 games to grab eighth place. They’re currently enjoying a 6-1-2 run.

They have seven home games and nine road contests left. The remaining slate’s a mixed bag, as they visit defending champion Boston twice (Thursday and the April 7 season finale) and the No. 1 overall New York Rangers once (March 23). The Sabres also get cellar-dwelling Montreal twice at home.

They play seven times against teams that had a playoff spot as of Tuesday afternoon. The Sabres face Washington (70 points) and Tampa Bay (68), the clubs between them and Winnipeg, once each on the road.

Of course, with way Miller’s been playing goal for the last six weeks, the Sabres have a chance against any opponent.

The 31-year-old looks every bit like the Vezina Trophy winner and Olympic hero from two years ago. In the last four games, the American’s 3-1 with a 1.51 goals-against average and .959 save percentage.

Miller compiled arguably the greatest consecutive goaltending efforts in team history last week, stopping a combined 82 shots during shutouts in Anaheim and San Jose, including 43 on Wednesday against the Ducks.

But Miller sounds like a goalie desperately in need of some rest. He’s started the last nine games and played in 20 straight.

“I’m tired from this trip,” Miller told reporters Monday in Winnipeg. “I can’t even talk right now.”

With tonight kicking off another set of back-to-back games and five contests in eight days, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff could turn to backup Jhonas Enroth for a rare nod.

The rookie’s struggled following an amazing beginning to his first full NHL season, going 1-9-2 in his last 12 decisions. He hasn’t won since Nov. 26. He got yanked from his last start, the atrocious effort in Philadelphia.

But Enroth blanked the Hurricanes on Nov. 18 in Carolina and has allowed only one goal in two career appearances against them. At some point, Miller has to rest.

Some offense would certainly relieve some pressure on the goaltending. The Sabres, despite their recent surge, still don’t have much.

Their 5-3 win Saturday in Vancouver was the first time they had scored four goals in a road tilt since Oct. 8 in Berlin.

Their supposed top line of Jason Pominville, Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek has generated little recently.

Pominville, a model of consistency all season, is pointless is six straight. The captain hadn’t gone more than three games without a point prior to the current drought. He’s also a minus-5 in the past two contests.

Meanwhile, Vanek is pointless in four games, has one goal in nine games and just four in his last 23. The Austrian, once on pace for a career season, could be playing through an injury. He missed three games in early February.

Roy’s pointless in three after tallying three goals and nine points in seven games, his best stretch this year. He has only 36 points this season.

Some secondary offense from four rare contributors – Brad Boyes, Tyler Ennis, Ville Leino and Drew Stafford – has helped recently.

So far, the Sabres haven’t received much from newcomer Cody Hodgson, who will make his home debut tonight. The rookie center, acquired at the trade deadline from Vancouver for winger Zack Kassian, is pointless in four games.

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