BUFFALO – Beaten down, broken and seemingly finished at several points this season, the Sabres’ tight 3-1 triumph over the Minnesota Wild on Saturday – their 18th win in 28 tries – bumped the scorching club into the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot.
On Feb. 17, the Sabres fell into the cellar, nine points out of the last postseason spot.
If the Sabres, who lead ninth-place Washington by two points (84-82), hold on, the stunning turnaround will be one of the greatest in NHL history.
No team in last place that late in February has ever made the playoffs.
“It shows the character we have in the room,” said Sabres captain Jason Pominville, whose team moved into a playoff spot for the first time since Dec. 19. “The guys stuck together. As fun as it’s been, there’s still work to be done. … But it has been a really good run.”
Seventh place is suddenly in play, too. The Sabres trail Ottawa by just two points.
Rookie Marcus Foligno secured the Sabres’ fourth straight win 1:45 into the third period, scoring his sixth goal and 10th point since his recall eight games ago.
Stationed in front on the power play, the winger tipped Tyler Myers’ wicked point blast by Wild goalie Josh Harding, getting his shin pad on the puck.
“He was in the right spot,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “I thought Tyler’s shot found a little bit of puck luck. The big man likes to get in front. We just got a bounce. Sometimes you’ll get that if you’re in the right place.”
Only five other active players – Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Teemu Selanne and Devin Setoguchi – have scored six or more goals in their first nine NHL games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The tally helped the 20-year-old Foligno shake off what he called a poor personal performance before the capacity crowd of 18,690 fans inside the First Niagara Center.
“It’s obviously huge to contribute,” Foligno said. “But at the same time, I just thought … this game wasn’t the best game. It was just good to get back.”
Following a day off today, the Sabres get back to practice Monday. They play Tuesday in Washington against the Capitals, a contest that could sway the standings further.
“I just told them, ‘Get your minds off hockey, get some rest,’” Ruff said. “The next one coming up’s a big one. But we’ll deal with that come Monday. And we play one game in the next four days. It should be an opportunity just to freshen up for this last little stretch drive.”
The Sabres have six games left. The Capitals, who have a game in hand, host the Wild tonight.
“The next six games are as difficult as they come,” said Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, who called reaching eighth place “a stop along the way.”
Believe it or not, the Sabres even have a realistic chance at the Northeast Division lead. Slumping Boston, which was playing in Los Angeles at press time, had 87 points.
Fresh off their big 4-1 over the Rangers on Friday in New York, the Sabres began the game wretchedly, getting outshot 16-11 during the first period. The Wild held a 9-1 shot advantage at one point.
Steve Kampfer opened the scoring on the Wild’s eighth shot, converting Kyle Brodziak’s nifty saucer pass over Myers on a two-on-one break.
The Sabres began dictating the pace early in the second period, outshooting the Wild 17-5.
“Back-to-back games, they were sitting their rested,” Ruff said. “I wasn’t surprised that they had better legs early on. But I thought we dug in. We shortened the shifts. We came out at the start of the second (and) we started to make a difference.”
Thomas Vanek tied it just 1:12 into the period, converting Cody Hodgson’s rebound, his first goal in eight games and only his second in 15.
Rookie Corey Tropp created the goal, hitting Nate Prosser in the right corner and freeing the puck.
With his late empty-netter, Hodgson has six points in four games following 10 pointless contests to start his Sabres career.
Meanwhile, Vanek, who’s been battling an undisclosed injury, played possibly his best game in weeks, zooming all over the ice. He also assisted on Hodgson’s score.
“He’s battling,” Ruff said. “There isn’t a lot going his way. … But he was in on some other plays. There was a lot to like. I thought he skated better than he has in a while.”