Sabres’ belief is ‘higher than ever’ as they inch closer to a playoff spot

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Don’t tell the Buffalo Sabres about their playoff math.

At the start of the week, the Buffalo Sabres were seven points out of a wild-card spot and had a 1 percent chance to qualify for the playoffs, according to The Athletic’s playoff model. Money Puck was slightly more optimistic, giving them a 1.8 percent chance. But the Sabres were also fortunate to be playing three games against the Red Wings and Islanders, the two teams they’re chasing for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, in a span of five days.

They started by dismantling the Detroit Red Wings 7-3 on Tuesday. Then they put together another dominant performance in their 4-0 win against the New York Islanders on Thursday. They also got some help when the Arizona Coyotes beat the Red Wings. That means the Sabres can now pull within a point of the Red Wings when they travel to Detroit on Saturday.

“Our belief is higher than ever right now,” Sabres center Dylan Cozens said.

It would have been easy to write off the Sabres, and some still will. They sputtered in a disappointing first half of the season and were as many as 11 points out of the final wild-card spot, on Feb 28. That’s why the playoff models considered their chances statistically minuscule, and they’re still fighting an uphill battle. But an NHL dressing rooms isn’t the type of place where people get too hung up on the playoff prediction machines.

“I know a lot of people counted us out, but this group in this room, we never counted ourselves out,” Cozens said. “We knew what we did last year and found a way to get close. And I think, last year, we kind of let the outside noise make us think we were out of it. And that’s something we’ve learned this year. Don’t worry about the outside noise, just worry about this dressing room and each and every guy in this room and and just go out each and every day and do whatever it takes. And that’s what we’re going to keep doing.”

The noise wasn’t just coming from the outside this time, though. A week ago, the Sabres lost in Nashville a day before the trade deadline. When they returned home, general manager Kevyn Adams traded captain Kyle Okposo and veteran Erik Johnson, wanting to give them a chance to play for a contending team. The two 35-year old veterans in the room saw a team that was nine points out of the wild-card race and wanted out.

Well, since those trades, the Sabres have won three straight games for just the second time this season and are now only three points out of a wild-card spot.

“We weren’t in a great spot then, so you look at those guys like Okie and EJ, and obviously you want what’s best for them,” Cozens said. “Okie’s done so much for this franchise. Every guy on this team has learned so much from him and we’re so grateful to have had him this last while. He’s such a huge part of this team, even when he’s not here. He’s created this culture here that has been so great for us. Nobody blames him to want to go hunt a Cup. We wish him the best but if we get in there, we’re going to see what happens.”

The math still isn’t necessarily in Buffalo’s favor. The Islanders are still three points ahead of the Sabres with two games in hand. The Red Wings have one game in hand and are up by three points. But the Sabres made things a lot more interesting by winning these two games.

And the way they’ve won has inspired some belief they can keep stringing wins together. Against a stingy Islanders team, the Sabres held a healthy 37-20 advantage in shots and 26-13 advantage in scoring chances. A strong first period from Ilya Sorokin kept the game scoreless, but the Sabres were undeterred.

“If we’re gonna go down, we’re gonna go down with a fight,” Cozens said. “We’re going to play like we honestly have nothing to lose. Because when we play like that, that’s when we’re at the top of our game. And that’s how we feel right now. We we obviously know there’s a lot to lose, but we can’t talk about that when we’re out on the ice.”

Victor Olofsson scored on the power play less than five minutes into the second period with a perfectly placed shot. That was his first power-play goal of the season, after he had at least seven in four straight seasons before this. Later in the period, Cozens and Zach Benson scored within a minute and a half of one another. Cozens pounced on a rebound, while Benson re-directed a shot in front of the net. For months, the Sabres lamented their inability to get the net front and generate chances. They’ve done plenty of that in the last two games.

They’re also still getting elite goaltending from Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who got his fifth shutout of the season. He now has four shutouts since Jan. 1 and has allowed three or fewer goals in 24 of his last 25 starts. He’s allowed four goals in a game just once since the new year. He is tied for the fourth-best goals-against average in the NHL and is tied for the ninth-best save percentage.

“He’s been incredible,” Cozens said. “You’ve got so much confidence in him back there. We know he’s going to make big saves. He’s been arguably the best goalie in the league for the last while.”

Without Luukkonen, this last-gasp effort at climbing into the postseason race wouldn’t have been possible. But it hasn’t been a one-man show lately, either. Benson scored a pair of goals and had his second straight multi-point game. Connor Clifton laid a few big hits, including one that sparked a fight, and the Sabres had a 7-0 edge in scoring chances when he was on the ice at five-on-five. Jordan Greenway played another dominant defensive game and led the team with five hits. The Sabres are getting contributions from all over the lineup. The lessons that Don Granato kept talking about while the Sabres were digging themselves a hole early in the season may finally be starting to sink in. And evidently, those lessons never included math.

“I don’t know if the math was ever against us,” Granato said. “There were other things against us. But the math is, you play 82 games, and teams lose games every night and teams win games every night. You just have to stay in the moment and stay focused. We have to do that.”

(Photo of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Alex Tuch: Joe Hrycych / NHLI via Getty Images)

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