BUFFALO – At this point, it’s a fair question to ask. Given the Sabres’ sorry state – they’re on a 0-5-1 run with AHL players filling out the NHL’s weakest roster following the trade deadline – can they win again this season?
The Sabres have 14 games left in their miserable campaign, starting with tonight’s tilt against the Washington Capitals inside the First Niagara Center.
They play six games against teams currently in a playoff spot – Washington, the Boston Bruins, Nashville Predators, Chicago Blackhawks, New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Sabres are 2-6-3 against those teams this season. They beat Washington 1-0 on Nov. 22 and the Isles 4-3 in a shootout Dec. 27, their last victory before an epic 14-game losing streak.
Of course, while there are no easy games for the NHL’s worst outfit, they have some lighter opponents.
In addition to the Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche and Columbus Blue Jackets, the Sabres face some real dregs – the New Jersey Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs, Arizona Coyotes (twice) and Carolina Hurricanes – down the stretch.
They’re 4-5-2 against those weak clubs this season.
Realistically, the Sabres, who have five wins this calendar year, should triumph again this season.
The hapless Leafs, despite Wednesday’s 4-3 shootout win against the Sabres, appear to have quit on the season. The Coyotes, a club heavily influenced by former Sabres general manager and tank-master Darcy Regier, their senior vice president and assistant GM, have sold off almost all their assets.
The contests against the Coyotes (28th overall) on March 26 and 30 could heavily influence or even decide which team finishes 30th.
But forget about the Sabres’ opponents for a moment. Sooner or later, a strong effort – players have kept giving what they have throughout all the upheaval and losing, coach Ted Nolan has said repeatedly – might pay off. It almost did Saturday, when they hung with the New York Rangers before falling 2-0.
Some strong goaltending, their greatest strength, should also pay some dividends.
The Sabres are 19-43-6 and have a downright stunning minus-101 goal differential with Lindback, Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth playing well in front of a barrage of shots most games. Sabres goalies have a .906 save percentage (23rd overall) but have faced a league-high 35.4 shots a game.
Where would they be without their goaltending? Would they even have 10 wins?
Nolan credits goalie coach Arturs Irbe, a former NHL All-Star, for the successful netminding.
“He’s doing a tremendous job with all the goaltenders this year,” said Nolan, who hired Irbe in the summer. “I thought Lindback is no different. You can see the progression of him getting better and better and better and his confidence really coming. Between Lindback’s work ethic and Arturs’ teaching, I think he’s doing a tremendous job.”
Nolan saw Irbe’s influence on goalie Kristers Gudlevskis up close coaching Latvia at the Olympics last year, when the raw, untested youngster nearly upset the mighty Canadians, making 55 saves in a 2-1 loss.
“I’ve seen him do miracles with (Gudlevskis),” Nolan said. “I mean, this kid came from junior-B level of hockey. I think he had about 10 minutes of pro hockey experience going into the Olympics and facing the shooters we did there. I thought he was tremendous. I just watched the progression of Kristers from a month that we had to work with him was incredible.”
Lindback was considered to be little more than a body when the Sabres acquired him from Dallas on Feb. 11 in the Enroth deal. The 26-year-old’s numbers then made him perhaps the league’s worst backup. Now, Nolan might ride him the rest of the season.
“I feel OK out there,” Lindback said. “Obviously, the more I play, the more comfortable the game becomes.”
Notes: The Sabres had Sunday off. They also play Tuesday in Boston. … Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin has 23 goals and 38 points in 35 career games against the Sabres. … The Sabres closed last season 3-17-2.