Buffalo Sabres looking to finally end long, ugly playoff drought
Rasmus Dahlin talked before the NHL season about finally getting the Buffalo Sabres over their ugly playoff hump.
And what it would mean for the city.
"It's such a passionate sports town," said the defenceman.
Dahlin also had a pretty good idea what the reaction to post-season success would look like on the ground after seeing the rabid support afforded the NFL's Bills — a franchise that's emerged from the darkness and climbed the standings with a young, exciting leader in quarterback Josh Allen following nearly two decades of futility.
"The things that makes me most excited about going into playoffs ... is you see the Bills," Dahlin continued. "They made the playoffs and it's thousands of people just waiting outside the airport.
"That's what makes me most excited."
The Sabres might finally get a taste this spring.
Buffalo's NHL team, which has missed the post-season a record 11 straight years, is in the middle of the Eastern Conference wildcard race for the final two playoff spots with roughly a quarter of the schedule remaining.
Heading into Wednesday night's action, the New York Islanders remained in the first wildcard, a point up on the Pittsburgh Penguins and four ahead of the Sabres. The Florida Panthers, Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings are also in the conversation.
When basing the wildcard chase on points percentage, however, the standings read as follows: Pittsburgh (.575), Buffalo (.559), New York (.547), Ottawa (.533), Detroit (.533) and Florida (.532).
The Sabres, who have finished fifth or worse in their division each of the last 10 years, started to turn things around last season after Don Granato was given his first full-time NHL head coaching gig by general manager Kevyn Adams.
Dahlin, who's currently out day-to-day with a lower-body injury and sits second in the league among blue-liners with 62 points in 56 games, has been one of the biggest beneficiaries.
The same goes for centre Tage Thompson, the Sabres' leading scorer with career-highs in goals (41), assists (39) and points (80) in 59 appearances in 2022-23.
Buffalo also got a haul for former captain Jack Eichel in the trade with the Vegas Golden Knights that included big winger Alex Tuch.
"He came in with a long-term mindset," Dahlin said of Granato, who first replaced the fired Ralph Krueger on an interim basis in March 2021. "He's like, 'You guys are here, you will only get better and better. I'm not looking for next game, I'm looking 80 games ahead.'
"An absolute perfect fit for our team."
Dahlin said the foundation was laid last season as the Sabres churned towards another playoff-less spring.
Finally, there was a little hope.
"He was the main reason why we got better," Dahlin said of Granato. "He came in with this mindset saying to the young guys, 'Play fearless ... don't think, just play.' If you compete and you work hard, mistakes will happen.
"But as long as you work hard, he has your back."
It seems to have the Sabres — finally — pointed in the right direction.
With so many contenders, especially in the East, continuing to load up ahead of the NHL trade deadline Friday at 3 p.m. ET, plenty of players have been packing up their lives.
Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Mark Giordano isn't going anywhere this week, but was in that group last season.
After spending 15 years with the Calgary Flames, the blue-liner was claimed in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft before being flipped to his hometown team.
Giordano said the emotions in the immediate aftermath of a trade run the gamut.
"Crazy first few days," said the 39-year-old. "But the excitement level is so high. I was in a situation last year where you're not in a playoff race and then you jump right into one.
"It's really nice as a player to get that excitement and get into the race and be back into the mix."
The Winnipeg Jets sat alone atop the Western Conference standings on Jan. 15 with a record of 29-14-1.
Not much has gone right since.
The Jets now rest in the conference's second wildcard slot after picking up just five regulation victories — and 10 regulation losses — over their last 17 games.
Included on the list of disappointing performances was a complete no-show Saturday in a 5-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche at Canada Life Centre before an equally disheartening 4-0 home setback Monday against the Islanders.
It prompted head coach Rick Bowness to lead all the drills at practice Monday.
"There's days where you let your assistants run the drills," he told reporters afterwards. "And there's days where the only voice they should hear is the head coach's voice.
"Today (was) one of those days."
Winnipeg responded by blowing leads of 2-0, 3-1 and 5-3 in Tuesday's 6-5 shootout loss at home to the Los Angeles Kings.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press