BUFFALO – You must go back 11 years and about 820 games to find the last time the Sabres played a late-season contest as meaningful as tonight’s against the Florida Panthers.
Having gone 4-0-1 in their last five outings, the surging Sabres, given up for dead barely two weeks ago, have roared back into the thick of the playoff chase.
“We have gotten back to our identity,” Sabres coach Don Granato said following Monday’s practice at KeyBank Center. “Can we play an even better? Yes. Are we pushing to do that? Yes.”
Right now, the Sabres trail the Pittsburgh Penguins by five points for the Eastern Conference’s final wild card spot. They’re four points behind the Panthers, the only team that separates them from the Penguins.
They have two games in hand on both Pittsburgh and Florida. They’ve played three fewer contests than the New York Islanders, who are one point ahead of the Penguins in the top wild card spot.
The Sabres, whose 11-year playoff drought is tied for the longest in NHL history, haven’t battled for a postseason spot this late since 2012, when they were eliminated in the 81st game.
“It’s awesome,” center Tage Thompson said of the Sabres playing such an important late-season game. “That’s exactly what you want is to be playing meaningful games at this point in the season. We’ve been playing good hockey as of late, so I think it’s exciting times. That’d really all you can say about it is just exciting to be in this position.
“It’s a good challenge and something, I think, everyone in our locker room wants and is excited for.”
How significant was Saturday’s 6-3 road win over the Philadelphia Flyers? The Sabres’ playoff chances increased to 23.6 percent, according to sportsclubstats.com, up from 10.8 percent.
That was one of three games Thompson missed last week recovering from an upper-body injury. But there’s a strong possibility the Sabres’ leading scorer will be returning to the lineup tonight in Florida.
Thompson, who has scored 44 goals and 89 points this season, practiced in his usual spot Monday between Jeff Skinner and Alex Tuch. Following the session, Granato spoke optimistically that Thompson can face the Panthers.
Meanwhile, the Sabres might utilize rookie goalie Devon Levi, who made his first NHL start in Friday’s 3-2 overtime win against the New York Rangers.
Levi, 21, had his own net Monday, giving him an opportunity to receive more reps in only his third practice since leaving Northeastern on March 17. Goalies Eric Comrie and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who played Saturday, shared the other net.
“We’re giving him that opportunity to see more shots and more volume where we can,” Granato said of Levi. “But I think he’s been through this, he’s in a routine. He played his college season and in a rhythm from that. So I don’t really worry about him getting ready. He’s pretty dialed in and his preparation is very … regimented and detailed.”
In his highly anticipated debut, Levi, one of hockey’s top goaltending prospects, looked impressive, stopping 31 shots.
“I didn’t come just to play one game,” Levi said. “I want to play more and I want to be able to give the team a chance to win. So I’ve moved past the game. It was probably one of the best days of my life. I just enjoyed it, soaked it all in. But when it’s over, it’s over. You turn the page.”
The Panthers drafted Levi in the seventh round in 2020 before trading him to the Sabres months later as part of the Sam Reinhart deal. The youngster acknowledged it would mean a little extra to play against them.
“That would be really cool,” he said.
With Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, sidelined, Alex Lyon will be starting, according to reports. Lyon, 30, has played just 34 NHL games, including 10 this season.
The Sabres dropped their first two meetings this season against the Panthers, an Atlantic Division foe, before beating them 3-1 on Feb. 24 in Florida. That victory briefly vaulted them into a playoff spot.
Days later, however, the Sabres began a dreadful 2-8-2 run in which opponents regularly throttled them.
“We’ve played some games not too long ago where we kind of let get out of control and I think it was due to probably feeling some pressure,” Thompson said. “Whether that was warranted pressure or not, we could feel pressure about the situation we’re in. That’s something moving for the remainder of the games we can’t let get to us, and I think it’s something you can take from those games you can learn.
“So I think moving forward we’re not going to feel that pressure. … We just got to embrace the opportunity and challenge ahead of us.”