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Sabres surge, Senators fade throws Eastern Conference race into chaos

Greg Wyshynski
Puck Daddy

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With their win last night, the Buffalo Sabres tied the Washington Capitals in points. They moved to within two points of the Ottawa Senators. They moved to within five points of the Northeast Division lead, owned by the Boston Bruins, who have two games in hand.

And yet if the playoff started today, the Sabres wouldn't be in them.

Such is life on the bubble in the Eastern Conference, which looks like this as play begins on Saturday:

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(Presented with due respect to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have 73 points with two games in-hand on most of the field; the Carolina Hurricanes have a tragic number of eight while the Toronto Maple Leafs' is seven.)

The two most intriguing trends here: The Ottawa Senators' three-game losing skid, part of a 1-3-2 streak; and the Buffalo Sabres' three-game winning streak, part of a 6-1-2 roll that's put them square in the playoff picture.

Is it panic time for Ottawa?

The Senators got starting goalie Craig Anderson back Friday night against the Montreal Canadiensfor a few minutes, before he was pulled in favor of Ben Bishop.

From the Ottawa Citizen:

Defenceman Chris Phillips said it was time the Senators woke up.

"We like our chances because it's in our hands," he said. "But, saying that, we have to realize now - not soon, now - that we can't go on cruise control into the playoffs.

"Teams behind us are playing well and we have to pick it up, not only to get ourselves in there, but that's where you want your game at when you're going to the playoffs."

The Senators host the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday, before traveling to Winnipeg.

The Sabres, meanwhile, have made the East race rather interesting. From Sabres Edge:

If the Sabres win tonight and the slumping Bruins lose at Los Angeles, which has won six straight to take over the Pacific Division lead, Buffalo would be just three points out of the Northeast lead (Boston would, however, still have two games in hand).

On Jan. 23, two days after the loss in St. Louis that was their 12th straight on the road, the Sabres were 21 points back. The Bruins have gone 11-15-1 since while the Sabres have put up their 17-5-5 run. Incredible. A win tonight also puts Buffalo two points behind idle Florida (the Panthers would also have two games in hand).

Now, the games in hand make it extremely difficult for the Sabres to actually catch either Boston or Florida. But the fact we can even write the above paragraphs is astonishing in itself given where the Sabres have come from

On top of all that, the Sabres can take sole possession of eighth with a win over the Minnesota Wild on Saturday, while the Capitals are idle … before facing the Wild on Sunday.

What's been behind the Sabres' turnaround? Brandon Schlager of Buffalo Wins tried to diagnose it, including:

If Tyler Ennis and Ryan Miller have emerged to fulfill their respective roles we had all anticipated coming into this season, then you certainly can't overlook what Roy and Stafford have done, as they, too, have their hands right in on the Sabres' recent success.

… It's no surprise that when these guys score, the Sabres win. It is what had been expected of them all season. Better late than never, I suppose. But we can only hope the underachieving duo manage to sustain that high level of play throughout the rest of the season.

The Sabres and Capitals face each other Tuesday in Washington for what amounts to a playoff game.

Jets (78 points) the rest of the way: at Predators, vs. Senators, vs. Rangers, at Hurricanes, at Lightning, at Panthers, at Islanders, vs. Lightning.

Buffalo (82 points) the rest of the way: vs. Wild, at Capitals, vs. Penguins, at Leafs, vs. Leafs, at Flyers and at Bruins.

Washington (82 points) the rest of the way: vs. Wild, vs. Sabres, at Bruins, vs. Canadiens, at Lightning, vs. Panthers, at Rangers.

Ottawa (84 points) the rest of the way: vs. Penguins, at Jets, at Flyers, at Islanders, vs. Hurricanes, vs. Bruins, at Devils.

Finally, the Southeast leading Florida Panthers (86 points): vs. Islanders, at Canadiens, at Wild, at Jackets, at Red Wings, vs. Jets, at Capitals, vs. Hurricanes.

The Jets earned a huge road win against the Capitals Friday night but have not shown enough consistency away from home -- that four-game road swing could be their season.

The Sabres/Capitals game will reveal plenty about both teams; but both teams have manageable schedules the rest of the way. (Provided the Leafs doing make that home-and-home their Stanley Cup Final against the Sabres.)

Ottawa ... that three-game trip is make-or-break, although the final two games may not mean much to the Bruins or Devils.

Florida controls its own destiny; the key is to not make that game against the Capitals in D.C. a must-win. Keep this in mind: They have the "weakest" schedule remaining, according to Playoffstatus.com.

So who makes the playoffs and who misses the cut?

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