Carter Hutton stops San Jose’s Joe Thornton on Tuesday. ©2018, Hickling Images

Sabres playing games with playoff implications again

BUFFALO – Considering they endured a seven-year run of futility before their recent resurgence, the Sabres haven’t exactly played a lot of big games lately.

That’s why tonight’s road tilt against the heavyweight Tampa Bay Lightning, which, believe it or not, trails the Sabres for the first time in, umm, a long time, is so meaningful.

The Sabres, who tied a franchise record Tuesday by winning their 10th straight tilt, ranked first in the 31-team NHL with 36 points entering Wednesday’s games. The Lightning are right behind with 35 points.

They haven’t played significant contests with postseason ramifications this late in a season since 2011-12, when they roared back from last place to briefly reach the top eight.

Sure, the Sabres hung around the playoff race a bit in 2016-17, creeping within two points of a spot in late February before their bye week. But other teams had games in hand and they fell apart immediately after the break ended.

Right now, the Sabres, who had Wednesday off, are 17-6-2. They haven’t finished at or above .500 since going 21-21-6 in 2012-13.

At their current pace, the Sabres would a earn franchise-record 118 points. Remember, they went 25-45-12 last season, mustering only 62 points.

So far, they’re 9-2-1 at home. They won just 11 times at KeyBank Center in 2017-18.

The Sabres, who begin a three-game road trip tonight, have been showcasing some terrific balance.

Nine different players have scored winning goals during their streak. Only winger Jeff Skinner, whose 19 goals were tied for the league lead entering Wednesday, has two. Skinner scored the overtime winner in Tuesday’s 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharks.

Yes, like a lot of other teams, the Sabres’ scoring is a bit top heavy.

Captain Jack Eichel has already compiled a team-high 28 points. Skinner, meanwhile, ranks second behind Eichel, his center, with 27 points.

But seven other players have recorded at least 10 points, including winger Jason Pominville, who ranks third with nine goals and 18 points.

All seven defensemen have scored at least one goal. The blue line has produced 14 of the Sabres’ 76 goals. Incredibly, a year ago at this time, a Sabres defenseman hadn’t scored yet.

The Sabres are scoring at a 249-goal pace over a full season, an average of 3.0 per game. They ranked 31st in scoring last year with only 198 goals and haven’t even cracked the 200-goal mark since scoring 211 in 2011-12.

Not surprisingly, the goaltending has also been the Sabres’ best in years. Carter Hutton has quietly become one of the NHL’s better netminders in his first season as a regular starter. The veteran is 8-0-0 with a 1.97 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage during the winning streak.

The Sabres haven’t missed a beat with Linus Ullmark, who’s 5-0-1 in his first year as a backup.

“It starts from Hutts and Linus,” Skinner said. “I think Hutts, he calms everything down. And in the back end, I think the six D back there are playing well. They’re calm, they’re steady, they’re blocking shots when we need a big block. It allows us as forwards to sort of get back to work in the offensive zone if we’ve been down in our end for a while.

“I think we do a good job staying the course and once we have an opportunity to get back on offense we do a good job of trying to swing momentum back our way.”

The Sabres have previously failed twice to win their 11th straight game. On Jan. 25, 1984, they tied the Washington Capitals 2-2. Then on Oct. 26, 2006, they lost a 5-4 shootout to the Atlanta Thrashers.

The Sabres have earned at least one point in 10 consecutive contests for the first time since an 11-game run from Dec. 26, 2009 to Jan. 18, 2010 (8-0-3).

Through 25 games, the Sabres are 10-0-2 in one-goal game. They haven’t triumphed in more than half of their one-goal games since going 21-9-11 in 2011-12.

The Sabres play the Florida Panthers on Friday before closing the trip against the Nashville Predators on Monday.

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