BUFFALO – The Sabres’ shocking resurgence – one that’s vaulted them from the Eastern Conference basement to a points tie with eighth-place Washington in 33 days – can be attributed to several factors.
The banged-up defense corps has stayed healthy and locked down. Several slumping stars have started scoring again, giving the team a secondary scoring attack. A few youngsters have contributed immediately upon their arrival from Rochester.
Most notably, though, Ryan Miller began playing like, well, Ryan Miller, NHL superstar.
It was only fitting the scorching goalie’s 34-save shutout – his career-high sixth and his fifth in 23 games – buoyed the Sabres past the Montreal Canadiens 3-0 on Wednesday before a capacity crowd of 18,690 fans inside the First Niagara Center.
No one’s played a more vital role in the Sabres’ 16-5-5 run, which has a team given up for dead at several points throughout the winter sniffing a playoff berth with eight games left.
“It’s just one big hockey game at this point,” Miller said. “We got to win. It’s a good stop along the way.”
With a game in hand and more regulation and overtime wins (35-28), Washington owns the tiebreaker over the ninth-place Sabres. Both teams have 80 points.
The regular season’s final 17 days could be scintillating. The Sabres play Capitals on Tuesday in Washington.
“We’ve put together a good run to get to where we’re at,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “We know that we have a tough schedule ahead of us. But it’s rewarding to get as close as we’ve gotten right now.”
Sabres captain Jason Pominville said the Sabres are “deserving to be where we are and are confident in the way we’re playing.”
“It’s been a grind,” he said. “It hasn’t been easy to get ourselves through tough times. But I think winning puts a smile on everybody’s face. We feel good about our game and have made some big changes.”
The biggest change might be Miller, who slumped badly for almost about two months after returning from a November concussion.
Right now, Miller’s dazzling like his dynamic 2009-10 Vezina Trophy and Olympic campaign. In his last 24 games, he’s 16-3-4 with a 1.86 goals-against average and .939 save percentage.
“He’s confident in his game,” Pominville said. “He’s playing well. At the same time, I think we’re playing better and he’s knows what to expect out of us in front of him.”
Miller said he regained his focus as the defense reached full strength and settled down in late January.
“We’ve limited rush chances,” he said. “We’re doing a good job on the penalty kill and also not taking too many penalties. Just little things add to up fewer goals against. And the goalie, in this case, reflects his team. Guys are playing better hockey overall. It helps me.”
Center Cody Hodgson, who endured 10 pointless games following his arrival from Vancouver, is finally helping his new team.
At the 6:15 mark Wednesday, Hodgson scored a weak wraparound goal on Habs goalie Carey Price, his first tally with the Sabres and first in 14 games going back to Feb. 23. Pominville tallied 2:31 into second period, and then Hodgson’s power-play goal capped the scoring 12:45 into the third period.
Fresh off a two-assist effort Monday, Hodgson’s first two-goal NHL game signals he’s found some comfort in Buffalo.
“Getting a couple of assists was going to be a boost for him,” Ruff said. “You feel good about that. Tonight he probably could’ve had four or five points. He made three or four great plays. … Anytime you can get a little bit of that pressure relieved … it helps.”
Ironically, a fluky goal ended Hodgson’s drought.
“Sometimes you got to get lucky,” said Hodgson, who’s been playing between Corey Tropp and Thomas Vanek. “Like I’ve been saying all along, sometimes you got to get a bounce here or there.”
Hodgson said he would’ve worried if he hadn’t been generating chances.
“The time to worry is not when you get chances; it’s when you’re not getting chances,” he said. “Before I thought our line had a bunch of chances. The pucks weren’t bouncing. Tonight we got some bounces.”
And some big stops early from Miller, including a breakaway save on David Desharnais during a 15-save first period.
“We needed a big save right off the bat,” Ruff said. “Those are saves that should give your team a little momentum. To step and give us that 1-0 lead, I thought we responded with support after that.”