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How the Buffalo Sabres Will Impact the Playoffs

To say this season has been going terribly for the Buffalo Sabres is a massive understatement (sorry to fellow CGS writer Zach Jezioro). Every single time we say it can’t get worse, they find a way for it to. It’s honestly impressive at this point how many ways they’ve found to suck. They’re currently on a 12-game losing streak, which is their longest one since the 2014-15 season, when they went on a team-record 14 game losing streak. On top of that, they’re dead last in the NHL by a pretty significant margin. That’s impressive considering the Detroit Red Wings exist. They finally fired head coach Ralph Krueger this morning, and while that usually gives teams a good jolt, it’s still entirely plausible they will set a new losing streak record. They’re playing that poorly, and things keep getting worse in the wake of captain Jack Eichel’s injury.

I truly feel bad for Sabres fans. They don’t deserve this. The organization hasn’t been good in a very long time and despite getting a lot of high draft picks as a result, the future isn’t bright. So, there really isn’t much of a reason for optimism when it comes to this team. But there is one thing Sabres fans can hope for this season, and that’s that their team players spoiler to the playoff teams. Here’s why that’s a possibility despite how near-historically bad they are.

It’s a Very Close Division at the Top

The East Division is perhaps the NHL’s strongest this season (despite Buffalo being in it). At this point, it is realistically a five-team race for four playoffs spots, but there’s a sixth that has the potential to make a push. Here’s a look at the standings, listed by points percentage (P%) as that’s currently more important than actual points, as of March 17th, 2021:

  1. Washington Capitals- 19-6-4, 0.724 P%.
  2. New York Islanders- 19-7-4, 0.700 P%.
  3. Pittsburgh Penguins- 18-10-1, 0.638 P%.
  4. Boston Bruins- 15-8-4, 0.630 P%.
  5. Philadelphia Flyers- 14-9-3, 0.596 P%.
  6. New York Rangers- 11-12-4, 0.481 P%.
  7. New Jersey Devils- 9-13-4, 0.423 P%.
  8. Buffalo Sabres- 6-18-4, 0.286 P%. 

As you can see, there isn’t much wiggle room at the top. So, none of those teams can afford to lose to lesser teams such as the Sabres, or the Devils for that matter. And that’s precisely where the Buffalo Sabres can play spoiler. If they can steal games from those teams, they could steal a playoff spot (not for themselves though, obviously). Even if they don’t steal a spot, it’s highly likely that they’ll play a big role in determining playoff seeding.

Why Is This True?

I know some of you are probably wondering why this is true. You’re probably saying that just because the Sabres steal more games from one of those teams than they do doesn’t necessarily mean that team will miss the playoffs or that they’ll get a bad seed. You wouldn’t really be wrong in saying that either. Teams could easily make up for losing games to the Sabres by making sure they beat the ones they’re fighting for a playoff spot with. However, it’s unlikely a team would lose to the Sabres (or Devils) only to sweep (or come close to sweeping) good teams. It’s just not how it works. So, suddenly games against the Sabres become critical wins if they want to make the playoffs and get a good seed.

Proof of Concept

For proof of this, let’s take a look at each of the top five teams’ records against the Buffalo Sabres this season:

  1. Washington Capitals- 5-1-0, 2 games remaining.
  2. New York Islanders- 6-0-0, 2 games remaining.
  3. Pittsburgh Penguins- 2-0-0, 6 games remaining.
  4. Boston Bruins- 0-0-0, 8 games remaining.
  5. Philadelphia Flyers- 4-1-0, 3 games remaining.

With the exception of the Flyers, there’s pretty damning evidence for my theory here. The top two teams in the division have gotten 10 and 12 points, respectively, from the Sabres this season. The third-place Penguins have gotten four, and sit above the Bruins, who have yet to see the Sabres. The only exception to this rule is the Philadelphia Flyers, who sit below the Bruins despite having gotten eight points against the Sabres this year. But, that’s because the Bruins are 5-0-0 on the season against the Flyers. The rest of the teams have pretty even records against each other, leaving the Sabres (and probably Devils, but this article is focusing on the Sabres) games as the difference.

Let’s take a look at how these teams stack up against each other with the Sabres games removed.

  1. Washington Capitals- 14-5-4, 0.696 P%.
  2. Boston Bruins- 15-8-4, 0.638 P%.
  3. New York Islanders- 13-7-4, 0.625 %.
  4. Pittsburgh Penguins- 16-10-1, 0.611 P%.
  5. Philadelphia Flyers- 10-8-3, 0.548 P%.

While the playoff teams remain the same, all but one seed changes. The only team to stay put is the Washington Capitals. As for the rest, the Bruins jump all the way up to the second place from fourth. The Islanders fall to third despite having a 4-0-0 record against the Bruins this season. The Penguins slip to fourth, despite being 4-2 against both the Islanders and Capitals this year. Lastly, the Flyers stay in fifth. But, their points percentage dips dramatically, to the point where it would be pretty difficult to come back from it. So, as you can see, if the Sabres don’t steal a spot away from a team, they dramatically change the seeding. Falling one spot may not seem like much, but it could be the difference between having home-ice advantage and not.

The Sabres Will Have a Major Impact on the East Playoffs

As you can see, the Buffalo Sabres have the potential to determine how the playoffs work in the East. They realistically could still steal a playoff spot for a team. They can’t really spoil things for the Capitals or Islanders at this point. But, they absolutely can for the other three. If they can steal even one or two more games from the Flyers this year, that could be the nail in their coffin, especially if they keep losing to the Bruins or the Penguins win the regular-season series. If they don’t, but steal numerous games from the Bruins and Penguins, suddenly the Flyers’ chances of sneaking into the playoffs improve dramatically.

But, even if they don’t affect who makes the playoffs, they will have a major impact on seeding. Should they steal several games from the Bruins or Penguins, it will make it very difficult for them to get a high seed. But, if they don’t, then the Bruins have a good shot at one of the top two seeds. The Penguins could get one too, although it will be difficult unless they start beating the Bruins more often.

So, despite sucking at a near-historically bad level, for the top five teams in the East, games against the Sabres are critical. If they want one of the top two seeds, they have to win them. If they don’t, they’d have to win season series by a commanding amount against good teams, and that’s not really realistic. So, seemingly inconsequential games suddenly become very meaningful. Win them, or lose the chance for home-ice advantage in the playoffs.

-Lydia Murray (@lydia_murray12)

Featured image courtesy of Elsa/Getty Images.

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