By Maureen Hennessey
He grew up in St. Catharines, Ontario, an hour or so from the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, where a guy busily making airline reservations glanced at his shoulder and remarked: “Can I get a hint? A big blue orb is the best place to be.”
I’m more or less getting a hint from watching the Buffalo Sabres. The team has been trending upward since a 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins last month. They’re on a four-game winning streak, up to 23 points in the American Hockey League’s North Division and 10th in the Eastern Conference. With a win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday, the Sabres would mark their highest point total for a season and set a franchise record for most points in a season before the trade deadline.
This is truly unlikely. According to ESPN’s NHL Prospect Tracker, the Buffalo Sabres haven’t finished higher than ninth in the overall standings since 2003-04. As recently as last season, the team was headed for the second overall pick in the draft.
And yet … the Sabres look good. They’re fifth in the East and one of only five teams under .500 to have won a game in the first week of March. Buffalo beat Columbus, St. Louis and Pittsburgh; two of the three opponents, including the Penguins, have playoff aspirations. Since beginning the season with a dismal 18-10-5 record, the Sabres have a 14-7-7 record.
The streak started with a 6-2 home victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that nearly finished last season in the first wild-card spot, one more than the Sabres have right now.
Is this just a blip or the nudge needed to complete the long-festering turnaround? I still hold out hope that it’s the former. The Sabres may not be the flashiest team around, but they have talented players like Tyler Ennis and Jason Pominville, centers who have signed long-term contracts the past couple of years. A healthy Jack Eichel, the top pick in the 2015 draft, is racking up points in his fourth season. And for the first time in years, it looks like management is executing well when it comes to getting the most out of the team’s young players. In the end, however, it really is about what goes on in the second half of the season and in March and April.
But hey, at least the Sabres are still going well in the NCAA Tournament. Or at least they did until their last NCAA Tournament game, a loss to Michigan in Omaha, Nebraska.