Was it really late last summer when Sabres coach Lindy Ruff told the media this year's goal was to win the Stanley Cup? At their lowest point, and the Sabres were dead last among 31 NHL teams earlier this season, Ruff was often reminded of that statement by fans and media.
Yet Ruff insisted, even at the low point, that this team would make the playoffs. That never wavered.
Funny how this time a year ago the Sabres were cruising into the playoffs after a 100 point season and a Northeast Division Title, with high hopes and home ice advantage in the opening round against the Boston Bruins. The Sabres started the season sprinting and coasted to the playoffs, but still with some momentum going 6-3-1 over their final ten games.
They take game one at home against the Bruins 2-1, then Thomas Vanek is hurt in game two, and even though he came back he was not effective and the Bruins took four of the next five. Vanek wasn't the only Sabre not at full speed a year ago, as Derek Roy and Tim Connolly were all but invisible in the playoffs. The early exit had many fans expecting - no, demanding - big changes.
Now here we are with the Sabres headed for the playoffs again, only they never contended for a division title and had to make a spirited run over the second half of the season to squeak into the post season. A lot of similarities with 225 goals allowed last season and 222 this season with a couple games left as this is being written.
But this year's team, as I see it, is in FAR better position to make a playoff run than last year's version even though that team won the division and finished with 100 points. It has more offense for sure, scoring 236 goals with a couple games to play, and the "d" is much more efficient now than it was earlier in the season.
Yes, having the late spark of new owner Terry Pegula turning Buffalo into a place players want to play didn't hurt, but that won't be as big a factor until next year and beyond.
Pegula has changed the culture; the feeling inside the room. There was the acquisition of Brad Boyes at about $4m a year, and not as a rental, and not giving anybody up as certainly would have been the case in past years. Huge, really, not just because Boyes has really helped the offense and is a positive guy in the room, but the message was sent and received that we're giving you what we can for you to win. It was assumed Connolly would be gone before the trade deadline, if for no other reason than to dump his salary, but that wasn't necessary, and Connolly has been a contributer in this late season charge.
Bringing back alumni for a big weekend and including them as part of the Sabres "family" again sends yet another message, especially to the younger guys. Speaking of those younger guys, a year ago nobody knew if Nathan Gerbe was an NHL player. Is he ever. We thought Tyler Ennis was good, but he's about to be REALLY good. Jonas Enroth? Who would think Ryan Miller would get dinged a bit when every point was crucial and the team wouldn't miss a beat?
Miller, make no mistake, is still "the guy" in goal, but it's no longer unthinkable if he does miss time, even in the playoffs.
No, this team had a new identity but didn't know what it was until after Christmas, even after losing leading scorer Derek Roy as it turns out. Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman were missed more than many outsiders expected, but members of the team knew the team would not be as strong without them and privately blamed Tom Golisano and Larry Quinn for letting them go to save a few bucks. They were not wrong to think that.
But the end result may be even better, because with Tallinder and Lydman gone, it forced Tyler Myers to mature a little more on his own at the robust age of 21, and youngsters like Andrej Sekera, Mike Weber and Chris Butler developed to the point they are now playing winning hockey. Steve Montador has had some ups and downs but has been solid. Although Jordon Leopold will still miss another couple weeks, his addition was a big one behind the blue line offensively.
This team is confident, and playing together, going 7-1-2 over the last ten with all of them games that mattered.
And lastly, but not leastly, the stars are starring. Vanek is at the top of his game right now, and when he's there, the Sabres are dangerous indeed. Drew Stafford is emerging as the star Ruff thought he should be, which brings us full circle back to the head coach.
Ruff is still here, and any thought there should be a change was foolish months ago and still is, obviously. Ruff convinced Stafford he needed to be in better shape, and it has made a difference. Jason Pominville is rolling again after being a non factor much of the season based on his early season concussion.
The only thing that matters come playoff time, and this is especially true in the NHL, is just get in there. The Flyers made it on the last day a year ago and went 6 games in the Stanley Cup finals.
The Sabres previous regime, and holdovers gm Darcy Regier and Ruff believed in this team all along, and you know what?
The snickers we were hearing early this season about Ruff's contention that this team's goal was to win a Stanley Cup, are not snickers anymore.